Saturday, March 12, 2011

Child Soldiers in the Rio’s Drug Wars

By Arushi Sharma

Edited by Gina Edwards

Mario (as he prefers to be identified) was 11 when he killed a person for the first time. It was night, and about 15 boys had gathered at the highest point in their favela, and after spending the evening snorting cocaine, the boys were high and looking for something to do. As Mario pulled the trigger to the .32 caliber revolver he looked at the x9—or snitch— and felt no remorse. He felt nothing because he was too high.

With the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics games, Brazilian officials have waged a war to pacify Rio de Janeiro’s drug and gang-related violence. As authorities try to decipher the maze of favelas, or slums, gangs have started using teenagers to do their dirty work since their prison sentences are shorter.
The gang culture

Jens Glüsing is a German foreign correspondent in the coastal city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He has first-hand experience of the drug wars being waged in the city and has been interviewing a number of young men apprehended in the conflict.

Glüsing points out that drug gangs control about 300 of the city’s 700 favelas, and murder is now the most common cause of death among Brazilian youth; 40 percent of all murder victims are between 15 and 25 years old.

At the age of 10, Mario began working for drug dealers by selling cocaine in the favelas. When he turned 11, he was promoted to a “rádio,” where he sat on a roof and looked out for possible problems while using a walkie-talkie to update his colleagues; he also snorted cocaine to stay awake.

For teenagers like Mario, part of becoming a “warrior” means abiding by the unwritten law of these gangs. For instance, in his gang, Terceiro Comando (Third Command), you never steal from anyone in the favela or flirt with someone else’s woman. Mario also enjoyed earning 250 Real ($150) a day; while children his age attend school, Mario lives the life of a favela king.

If Mario had not been arrested after someone tipped off the police, he would have eventually become a “gerente,” or manager of a drug selling operation. Today he is 17 and an inmate at the “Escola João Luiz Alves,” a youth correctional facility in Rio. Even today he remains loyal to his gang.

According to BBC News, countless young men—many of them teenagers—have died in Rio’s drug wars over the past six weeks alone. Even in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, minors are dying every day in battles between warring “Maras,” or youth gangs.
View from the outside

Eli Dezi is a student at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) and has seen violence first hand.

“I didn’t grow up in Rio, but now that I study here it’s hard to ignore everything that’s going on,” said Dezi. “I did recently read somewhere that lawmakers are considering increasing sentences for even 16-year-olds.”

According to Glüsing, the mafia takes advantage of the fact that minors cannot be given adult prison sentences. Comando Vermelho (Red Commando), one of Rio’s largest criminal organizations, prefers to use adolescents to commit its crimes because if apprehended, the minors spend only a few months in prison. Also, drug users and possessors in Brazil are not arrested and jailed, but rather cited and offered rehabilitation and community service; this makes it easier for the boys to return to their gangs shortly after being released.

Mario will be freed soon. So what does he plan on doing after he is let go? “I guess I’ll look for a job,” he said. “Otherwise the dealers will always have a job for me.”