Report spotlights children in Rio's drug war
The 16-year-old is a combatant in this city not officially at war, but
hundreds of children and adolescents die each year from small-arms fire.
"I looked to the street and the police were coming," the teenage gang member
researchers. "I started exchanging fire with them. I jumped over the wall and got
close, then BOOM everything shook. It was the first time I threw a grenade. It was
The story of Rodrigo X -- a name used to protect the teenager's identity
-- is part
of a new report, "Child Combatants in Armed Organized Violence in Rio de
Janeiro," by British anthropologist Luke Dowdney. Funded by the Ford Foundation,
Save the Children Sweden and UNESCO, the report is the focus of a two-day
international conference that opened Monday.
According to Dowdney, some 6,000 children and adolescents between the ages
10 and 18 serve as "soldiers" in the drug gangs that control most of the city's many
shantytowns, or favelas.
Dowdney said his study began at a United Nations conference on child soldiers
year in Florence, Italy.
"I stood up with two pictures, one of a kid with an M-16 and the other
pistol and a hand grenade and they told me: 'Those aren't child soldiers. That's gang
violence,"' Dowdney explained. "Then I asked: 'Well, where do you draw the line
involving armed conflict?"'
Between 1978-2000, 49,913 people died from small-arms fire in Rio de Janeiro,
vast majority between the ages of 15 and 24, Dowdney said.
In Rio, young men are more than five times more likely to die from small-arms
than youths in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, Dowdney said.
"What we see in Rio is really an extreme manifestation of the combination
poverty, lack of opportunity and a flood of guns," said Rebecca Peters of
International Action Network on Small Arms.
In Rio, some drug gang members are paid monthly salaries to defend their
and routinely tote big-caliber automatic weapons like AK-47s and AR-15s.
"In general terms, they are not child soldiers because there is no war
going on. And
as soldiers they could be targeted lawfully by the state," said Rachel Brett, a
specialist on the issue of child soldiers for the Quaker United Nations Office. "But
the impact on the children's development is similar."
What outsiders call them means little to the youngsters in the trenches
of Rio's drug
wars, where gun battles often last hours and involve hundreds of gang members.
At least 300 children a year die from small-arms fire in Rio, according
statistics. Dowdney believes the actual number is much higher, but the bodies are
buried in unmarked graves in the numerous clandestine cemeteries around the city.
The drug gangs lure children and adolescents with the prospect of easy
respect from peers. The recruits usually start by running errands, delivering drugs
and keeping watch for police, then move up the ladder.
"We can't resolve the problems of children and adolescents in the drug
without addressing the larger institutional problems. We need to make a tremendous
investment to compete with the financial attractiveness and the status the drug
gangs represent," said Rio de Janeiro state security secretary Roberto Aguiar.
In a country where the minimum wage is barely $63 a month, it's a powerful
attraction. And in the favelas, it's simply a way of life, Dowdney said.
"It's normal for many of these kids to see 50 people walking around their
neighborhood heavily armed," he said. "These are the guys who command respect
in the community. These are the heroes."
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.