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BRAZIL: ‘I’m the Only Gang Member Alive and Free’

Mario Osava

SÃO LUIS, Brazil, Aug 2 2007 (IPS) - Most of them were 15 or 16 years old when they created the gang "Falta de Deus" (Lack of God), a name chosen because "we were all against Christ." Of the 25 members, 10 are dead and 14 are in jail. "I&#39m the only one still alive and free," says 22-year-old Elias da Silva.

Gangs have been particularly violent in São Luis.  Credit: Mauricio Miguel

Gangs have been particularly violent in São Luis. Credit: Mauricio Miguel

Some of the names of the violent youth gangs that began to mushroom in the 1990s in São Luis, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão, were "Messengers from Hell", "Mind Organisers", "Crazy Ducks" and "Terrible Nocturnals".

Five of the members of Silva’s group were girls, two of whom are now dead. The gang had few firearms, also using knives and machetes to rob and steal, and in battles with rival groups, which cost the lives of 10 members of Falta de Deus and who knows how many lives of people from other gangs.

"I myself was stabbed in the stomach, and spent many days in the hospital," says Silva.

Teenage gangs, as a form of often aggressive socialisation, are common in Brazil’s large cities, but not with the degree of violence and crime that they have taken on in São Luis.

The gangs’ cruelty and turf wars are similar to those of the gangs that had their peak in the Colombian city of Medellín in the 1980s and 1990s. Members of rival groups have been dismembered and their parts have been buried "in the midst of a ritualistic euphoria, fuelled by drink and drugs," says Silva.

"We had plans to dominate part of the neighbourhood, Villa Bessa," where the group had its headquarters in a local house, and "sometimes had the support of drug traffickers."

The number and strength of gangs have reportedly waned in recent years. But the São Luis police department on juvenile offenders registered 329 crimes committed in the first half of 2007, including 23 homicides. In most cases, no adults were guiding or leading the adolescents, by contrast with drug trafficking-related crimes in which teenagers are involved.

The reasons that youngsters rebel and join gangs vary. "Many start living in the streets because of mistreatment in their families," says Silva, who was born in Brasilia but was soon "abandoned at the doors of a hospital." After he spent 14 years in an orphanage, his father showed up and took him to São Luis. He never met his mother and does not know what happened to her.

Silva says his father was a heavy drinker who frequently beat him, and once induced him to drink so much that he fell into an alcoholic coma.

Nor does Silva know what happened to his stepmother or his younger sister, who was given to a woman who later vanished.

The only option he had left were the streets and gang life.

After several arrests and suffering torture at the hands of police and hunger in the streets and falling into drug use of all kinds, an emaciated Silva understood that he "had to take another route."

The changes came gradually. Matraca, a Brazilian news agency that promotes the rights of children, invited him because of his leadership qualities to participate in a nationwide network of youngsters organised to press for and monitor public policies relating to children and adolescents.

"I discovered a new way of life," he says.

He also attributes his recovery to the special attention he received in the Fundação da Criança e do Adolescente do Maranhão (foundation for children and adolescents -FUNAC), the government body that looks after abandoned children and incarcerates juvenile delinquents while attempting to "rehabilitate" them through "socioeducational measures."

FUNAC’s name varies from state to state, but it is generally seen as failing in its mission. Its reputation has been hurt by reports of abuses, and detainees frequently stage riots and escape.

At the age of 18, Silva was no longer eligible for assistance from FUNAC.

"In Brazil there are no policies for young people," laments Marcelo Amorim, the head of Matraca.

Silva agreed to be admitted to the Fazenda da Esperança in Coroatá, 250 km from the city of São Luis. The "fazenda" or estate is a drug rehabilitation centre run by the Catholic Church.

"I only weighed 50 kg when I got there, compared to 98 today," says Silva, who at 1.85 metres is tall compared to the local population.

After nearly three years in treatment, he has no interest in returning to a past marked by "such enormous suffering." Since his rehabilitation ended, he has shared his experiences in a support group in São Luis to help other young people get off drugs.

However, he faces the risk of losing his job, because the company where he works is on the verge of bankruptcy. Because he dropped out of primary school in the sixth grade, it will not be easy for him to find another job.

He also faces another threat, which would seem to be a thing of the past given that the gang has broken up. "We had an agreement that we wouldn&#39t leave the gang," and the penalty for desertion was death, he says. "I was the only one who left," he adds.

New gangs continue to appear in São Luis and the number of adolescents involved does not seem to have declined in the past few years, says Ana Carolina Alves, a social worker who wrote an article based on press reports on youth gangs as the final thesis for her degree last year.

Her conclusions are also based on her experiences as an intern in the office of the public prosecutor, where she saw a large number of adolescents from outlying slum neighbourhoods involved in crime.

But there are no studies or broad, reliable statistics on the issue, Alves laments. She admits however, that the gang problem has been reduced in neighbourhoods where specific anti-gang activities have been carried out.

That is the case of Coroadinho, known as one of the most violent areas in São Luis. This made it a top priority for the state secretariat of citizen safety as part of its new method of fighting gangs, based on local plans designed as a result of dialogue with the local community, represented by a social defence council.

Coroadinho, which is made up of 17 poor communities that are home to around 75,000 people, celebrated four months with no murders in June.

Much of the credit for the reduction of violence in the neighbourhood must go to the Projeto Paz Juvenil (youth peace project), coordinated by Claudett Ribeiro, an educator who helped found the non-governmental Instituto da Infância (children’s institute – IFAN).

The project has been active in the area since late 2004, when a survey identified nine youth gangs based in specific communities or streets in Coroadinho.

The youth peace project has promoted seminars, surveys, courses and a literary workshop organised by and involving gang members.

The project brought new optimism that it was possible to overcome the problem of violence in the neighbourhood through the new focus on the issue, which was no longer treated merely as a matter for the police or law enforcement, but as a broad-based social phenomenon. The new approach has also given a voice to young people, helping to overcome the stigma and prejudice faced by gang members.

Fights between gangs in Coroadinho, 226 of which broke out in the first half of 2004, dropped to just 10 in the same period this year, according to IFAN studies based on Military Police documents.

The neighbourhood "is still very violent, but that has improved significantly in the last two years," says a local shopkeeper who has lived here for 15 years and only gave her first name, Cristina.

Now there are more police, and a wide range of social actions, "mainly the ones carried out by Claudett Ribeiro," which are excellent although on a small-scale, she adds.

A similar assessment is made by Sergeant França, a Coroadinho resident who has been a member of the Military Police for 20 years. He says drugs are the main cause of juvenile delinquency, aggravated by teen pregnancy and the shortage of schools and recreational activities and spaces, all of which "push youngsters into the street."

Other initiatives, like a stronger police presence, community actions, and a vocational training centre, have contributed to reducing crime levels in Coroadinho, but the youth peace project was the only one to directly involve members of youth gangs, an actor who many would like to see remain "invisible," according to Ribeiro.

The aspect of the project that has had the greatest impact was a writing workshop, which organised contests for short stories, poetry and hip-hop lyrics, allowing young people to express themselves, collectively discuss different issues, and improve their self-esteem and interpersonal relations.

Most of the participants either belonged to youth gangs or were within their zone of influence.

The Revista Literária Portal do Coroadinho magazine emerged from the writing workshop, in which 68 youngsters took part. It was published by the members of the workshop, who also promoted a campaign for solid waste collection in the community and a survey on traditional games.

The most promising result of the youth peace project, in Ribeiro’s view, is the recently created "association of young volunteers for peace".

The initial goal of the first president of the new association, Marcos Santana da Silva, is simply for young people to get to know each other, in order to overcome barriers imposed by gangs within the neighbourhood.

Other aims are to open up prospects for work and promote courses and cultural and sports events.

Santana, who won prizes in the project’s literary workshop, says he himself never fell into "the trap of violence," but adds that both he and his fellow association member, José Ribamar Mendes, have brothers and friends who have been "lost" to drugs and violence or killed by guns and machetes.

And Mendes, for example, avoids parties, ever since he was the target of a stone-throwing incident that left a scar on his face.

The youth peace project, which has worked directly with around 1,000 adolescents, proposes a community-based alternative, focused on prevention and driven by the energy of young people themselves, so that the process of recovery is not as lonely and painful as Elías da Silva’s.

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