In Rio de Janeiro, tourists are drawn to Copacabana for its wide beach and foliage-covered cliffs. But earlier this month, not far from the tourist hub, an American woman and her French male companion were abducted. She was brutally gang raped; he was beaten.
Perhaps what was most shocking to Brazilians, though, was the age of one of the alleged accomplices: he was barely in his teens.
“Why? That’s what you ask yourself,” says Sylvia Rumpoldt, who is walking with a friend at dusk by the sea in Rio. “It’s horrible. It’s criminal energy.”
Her friend, Maria de Paula, agrees. What’s happening with children in Brazil is barbaric, she says.
Crime in the South American nation has been in the headlines recently, especially as it prepares to host two major sporting events — the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
But a recent spate of attacks by minors has kicked off a heated debate here. Children increasingly aren’t only the victims of violence in Brazil, they are often the perpetrators, and the country is struggling with what to do about it.
Youth Crime Soars
Crimes committed by young people are on the rise. In the last 10 years, arrests of minors for robbery and murder have jumped 138 percent in the state of Sao Paulo alone, according to police statistics. One recent example: Police apprehended a gang of 10-year-olds this month for using toy guns to hold up commuters at traffic lights.
The reasons for the rise in youth crime are complex, experts say.
Andrea Martins, an associate professor at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Brazil, is a psychiatrist who has studied troubled teens. In some ways, he says, the surge in youth crime is a product of Brazil’s economic boom.
He notes that on the one hand, Brazilian children have no proper preschool, and there is no daycare. That means that in poorer areas, kids grow up on the streets from an early age.
“They have not learned empathy and how to deal with others,” Martins says. “And then they are bombarded with the message that they have to consume. But they don’t have access to what they want, and they try and get it at any price.”
Add to that the issue of drugs — there is a crack epidemic in Brazil — and you have a lethal mix, he says.
For many, the answer to the problem is tougher measures against juvenile offenders.
Hundreds of people gathered on a recent weekend to demand that authorities lower the age of criminal responsibility in Brazil to 16 from 18.
Another headline-grabbing incident this month prompted the wave of protests: a 19-year-old university student was killed by a 17-year-old recidivist who was trying to take his cell phone.
Airton Deppman is the uncle of the college student who was killed.
“We are fighting here to change this law that we believe is not making justice for the people who are struggling to make a better society here in Brazil,” Deppman says.
In a poll carried out last week, a whopping 93 percent of people agree the law should change.
But some activists and psychologists who work with minors say doling out more punishment isn’t the answer.
A Generation At Risk
On a recent morning in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, a group of children mimic their teacher as they learn dance steps during a class in a poor neighborhood.
It’s part of a program run by the Maria Helen Drexel Association that takes street kids and fosters them in more stable environments.
Program founder Father Joao Drexel says the aim is to give children a strong, nurturing foundation.
He says his organization has been working for 40 years, but things have changed: Many of the children who come to them now have already been exposed to criminal behavior.
“The children that come today are much more difficult than 20 years ago and 30 years ago,” Drexel says.
He says putting younger teens in prison won’t help the situation. Brazil has to address the underlying causes of the violence.
“Our government has not invested in housing, not invested in health, education,” he says.
As a result, Drexel says, an entire generation is growing up at risk.