September 10, 2002

Report spotlights children in Rio's drug war

                 RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- The crowning achievement of Rodrigo X's
                 young life wasn't graduating from school or scoring a goal on the soccer field
                 -- it was throwing his first hand grenade.

                 The 16-year-old is a combatant in this city not officially at war, but where
                 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 told
                 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 of
                 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 last
                 year in Florence, Italy.

                 "I stood up with two pictures, one of a kid with an M-16 and the other holding a
                 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, the
                 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 fire
                 than youths in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, Dowdney said.

                 "What we see in Rio is really an extreme manifestation of the combination of
                 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 favelas
                 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 to official
                 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 money and
                 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 traffic
                 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.