Jefferson can’t remember exactly how his mother died. Homeless on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, he spends his time sniffing cocaine and trying to forget.
On his 13th birthday he was locked up in Padre Severino, a notorious young offenders’ institute. When he escaped, weeks later, he headed back to the city center, where he now lives, scavenging leftovers from local restaurants and trying to avoid the police.
“The police might arrive at any time and kill me if I’m not switched on,” explains the 15-year-old, huddled under the Lapa viaduct in central Rio.
Around him lie heaps of squalid mattresses, home to dozens of ‘colleagues’.
“Anything is enough for them to start giving us trouble,” he says.
Researchers say Jefferson is one of up to 3,000 street children living an increasingly dangerous existence in Rio de Janeiro.
More young Brazilians are killed here than in any other Brazilian state, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with 128 deaths for every 100,000 15-24-year-olds.
Street kids, some as young as nine, are among the most at risk, trawling the city’s cracked pavements day and night in search of food and money.
During the 1980s and 1990s Brazilian ‘death squads’ made up of off-duty police officers routinely murdered street kids.
Udi Butler, a leading researcher into Brazil’s street children from the International center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI), believes these squads are now less common.
“Organized extermination groups specifically targeting children on the streets don’t still seem to be operating like they did in the early 90s,” he says.
But for street kids like Jefferson the threat seems no less real.
“The other day the police turned up here and asked if we had homes to go to. My friend said no, so he started attacking him with a stick. I said I was from the Morro dos Prazeres – a slum in central Rio – but he beat me anyway.”
The execution of seven under-18s in Nova Iguaçu last month again underlined the dangers facing young people in Brazil’s poorer communities.
“With the rise of the drug gangs, you have another kind of extermination,” says Butler.
“The boundary between police and the drug gangs has become very blurred and the killing of young people is happening all over the place, whether they are members of the drug gangs or not. People on the streets have been caught up in the escalating violence relating to this,” he added.
Yvonne de Mello, a campaigner and social worker, says most street children in Rio are fleeing the drug wars that plague many of its 680 favelas, or slums.
“This everyday violence makes favelas a constant source of street children,” she explains at her project in the Baixa do Sapateiro slum where drug traffickers recently cut the legs off a local boy before executing him.
“They come from the slums where you have shootings every day,” adds de Mello.
Life on the streets is seldom an improvement. At best, street kids are shunned or verbally abused by the public. At worst, they are threatened, sexually abused, or beaten by police.
Many, like 14-year-old Godói, turn to cheap hallucinogenic drugs like ‘thinner’ (paint stripper) as a means of escape.
Godói’s parents were always fighting, he says. Aged eight, he moved in with his grandma and, when she died, he chose the streets over the constant rows back home.
He won’t be homeless forever, he says. He already plans to have two sons and doesn’t want them to grow up, like him, on the streets.
“There are only two things that take away the fear of violence: drugs and the presence of God,” explains baby-faced Godói, stashing a can of paint-stripper under his torn shirt. “With God by your side you don’t even feel hungry.”
“For them using drugs is like a survival strategy to forget stressful conditions where they come from or the hardship of life on the street,” explains Butler, whose documentary “Coming of Age on the Streets of Rio” examines the lives of the city’s street populations.
It’s impossible to ignore the clusters of scruffy street children who beg at traffic lights in cities like Rio de Janeiro, as much part of the landscape as the statue of Jesus Christ that towers above the chaotic city.
Butler describes these children as “a bitter fruit in a complex tree of poverty and inequality”.
Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of wealth distribution, with the country’s richest 10 per cent controlling nearly 50 per cent of its wealth, according to the World Bank.
For kids like Jefferson and Godói, trapped in a cycle of drug abuse and physical violence, there seems little escape.
“When I see kids going home from school with their parents at five O’clock, running along happily, I can’t understand why I don’t have this,” says Jefferson.
Some are lucky. Fábio Campos de Oliveira, 23, spent 10 years on the streets and still has the wounds to show for it. Five years ago his right leg was shattered by a bullet after a failed robbery attempt in Rio’s city center.
“There were five of us and we saw a man coming out of the Bingo Hall with a big bag. We started to follow him but a security guard came out and spotted us… We didn’t stop and another guard came out and began shooting,” he recalls, pointing to a thick bullet scar still coursing across his thigh.
After being taken in by social workers at the Madame Satã radio station in Lapa, Fábio turned his hand to DJ-ing.
“Lots of street kids get out but come back. But there are others who sorted themselves out. I don’t think I’m an exception,” he explains giving the example of his friend Renato de Souza, who starred as Marreco in the hit film “City of God.”
Fábio now hosts two radio shows and wants to go to college.
Butler believes cases like these show a growing determination on the part of the authorities to confront the problem’s roots, but accepts that such incidents are rare.
“There are positive things going on. There are a number of NGOs and government agencies trying to improve the conditions of the street population,” says Butler. “But Brazil’s social and economic problems will take longer to solve.”
“Unless these kids are given more alternatives and opportunities, the street can actually be a very attractive option. A number of people say it has an addictive quality – it’s a space of freedom… from being told what to do.”
Brazil’s estimated 18,000 street kids live by a complex set of codes.
“Life on the streets teaches you something being in school or university or the army never will – survival in the school of life,” explains Fábio.
“On the streets you learn to be humble, to share things and what friendship really means. It gives you the sensation of having a real family.”
It’s common for street kids to ‘marry’ as young as 12 in search of stability and compassion. But the underlying violence is never far away.
“If you see a girl with a cut face it’s because she stole someone else’s husband’,” Fábio says.
Twelve years ago vigilantes stunned Brazil, murdering eight street kids in Candelária, central Rio.
At the time, research by Human Rights Watch, an organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world, showed that 5,644 kids aged between five and 17 met violent deaths in Brazil between 1989 and 1991.
Academics like Udi Butler who thought ‘death squads’ had stopped targeting street kids are now more cautious.
“Until recently I would have said that the really bad things that happened in the early 1990s like Candelária haven’t happened to that extent since. But then recently several under-18s were murdered by thugs on the streets of São Paulo.”
At street level the vision is bleaker still. Fearful of being killed in their sleep, the kids clustered around Lapa’s viaduct keep a constant vigil until dawn, chanting rap lyrics and smoking cigarettes.
“Some of us sleep whilst the others stay awake,” explains Jefferson. “If everybody went to sleep at the same time you never know what might happen.”
Tom Phillips is a British freelance journalist who has lived in Brazil for two years. He writes for the “Independent” and the “Sunday Herald” and has had his work published in newspapers around the world. You may visit his blog at http://globalnoticias.blogspot.com or contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared originally in Scotland’s “Sunday Herald.”