Death Squads Kill Brazil’s Crime-Prone Street Kids


Cleiton, 12, used to steal from the stores in a shopping gallery near the center of Duque de Caxias, one of the grimy, violent suburbs on the sprawling northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. He belonged to the ragged legion of street kids who live by their wits and sometimes die by the gun.

Cleiton’s killers caught up with him one night last January as he slept on a sidewalk near the gallery. A boy called A.G., who knew Cleiton, tells the story in a few words.

“He was sleeping,” A.G. said, “and they filled his face with bullets.”

Cleiton’s death was not an isolated incident. Hundreds of deprived and delinquent Brazilian minors are killed every year.

According to people who monitor the situation, an alarming number of youngsters are killed by “extermination groups"--death squads bent on cleaning up crime-plagued areas.


Death squads have been at work for years in Brazil, but concern has risen in the past year because of the number of youngsters being killed, not only in Rio but also in other urban areas, including Sao Paulo and Recife.

Generally, young people are too frightened to talk about the situation, but A.G., a thin, dark boy with shy eyes and fluffy curls, agreed reluctantly to meet a reporter if two women he trusts, a Roman Catholic nun and a social worker, could be present.

They met in a church-sponsored center where street children can come for a free meal, a warm shower, basic schooling and kind encouragement. A.G., in a soiled blue soccer shirt, faded shorts and rubber sandals, kept his eyes on the table in front of him and fiddled with a piece of plastic tape as he talked.

“Everyone is afraid,” he said. He said he had known “a heap” of youngsters killed in Duque de Caxias. One was Luciano, 16, picked up by his killers in January and shot in the head. His body was dumped on a hill behind the cathedral.

“He robbed stores,” A.G. said of Luciano. “During the day he would study the store, and at night he would go in through a window and clean it out.”

Two weeks after Luciano’s death, gunmen killed his friend Ademir, 16. “He also robbed,” A.G. said.

There is no doubt, he insisted, about who the killers work for. “The store owners pay them to kill us,” he said.

A.G. has slept in the streets for 11 of his 16 years. He said the killers almost got him when he was 13.

“I was asleep, and they threw me into a car,” he recalled. “They took me to the valao (an open sewage canal that runs through Duque de Caxias), and told me to jump in. I jumped and fell down in the dirt. Then I got up and ran, and they fired a shot that hit me in the leg.”

He showed a small scar below his right knee where he said the bullet grazed him.

“I felt the pain,” he said, “and I went running to the train station and the railroad police. They protected me.”

Sister Beatriz Semiano listened as the boy talked, and she confirmed the dangers he described.

“He lives in the street, he sleeps in the street, and he is threatened with death,” she said. “It is a terrible problem in Brazil.”

Sister Beatriz and others who are concerned about the killing say the problem has its roots in urban poverty, antiquated laws, police corruption and ineffective systems for providing child welfare and criminal justice.

To survive, many street children turn to petty crime. By the time they reach their teens, some are involved in serious crime: drugs, burglary, armed robbery.

By law, offenders under the age of 18 cannot be brought to trial, and few are held for long at low-security detention centers. Some simply walk away, and some are let out because of overcrowding.

Merchants, driven to desperation by robberies, hire private security guards, many of them off-duty or former policemen, who take the law into their own hands and eliminate criminals of all ages.

In some slums, drug gangs provide security for merchants, killing robbers and thieves. The gangs fight one another, too, and sometimes kill their own people for violating strict codes of loyalty and secrecy.

Often it is hard to say who is behind a killing, a gang or an extermination group. Wolmer do Nascimento, a coordinator for the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls, which works with abandoned children in several Brazilian cities, said there are 10 groups, “more or less,” at work in Duque de Caxias.

Tiana Se, who is also a coordinator for the movement, said that death squads hired to eliminate thieves and muggers from tourist districts of Rio--Copacabana and Ipanema--often dump their victims’ bodies in the northern suburbs.

Se, a public schoolteacher with children of her own, said the killers of juvenile delinquents “are applauded because society says they are bandits--nothing can be done with them.”

“The thing is getting worse all the time,” she said. “The number of deaths is increasing.”

Official statistics are generally imprecise and incomplete, but several recent studies show that a significant number of youngsters are being killed and that the problem is spreading.

One shows that 184 children younger than 18 were killed by firearms in Duque de Caxias and the neighboring municipality of Nova Iguacu in 1987 and the first half of 1988.

A private research center, the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis, went through newspapers in 10 states and found 81 reports of minors killed by death squads in the first half of 1989. The institute is working on a study that covers all of 1989.

Other figures show that more than 110 young people, all under 18, have been killed “execution style” so far this year in metropolitan Sao Paulo.

Gilberto Dimenstein, an investigative reporter, estimates that killers are reducing the number of Brazil’s young people at the rate of more than one a day.

In a recent book, “The War of the Children,” Dimenstein says that sometimes a child is killed to eliminate a potential witness, because minors in crime-ridden neighborhoods “know the names of policemen or bandits involved in crimes and (death) squads.”

In his book, Dimenstein asks a man he identifies as a former death-squad killer if he has killed children, and the man responds:

“Nobody here asks the one he is going to kill for identification papers. A bandit is a bandit, whether he is 10, 15 or 40 years old.”

Liborni Siqueira, one of only two juvenile judges in Rio de Janeiro, a city of 7 million people, says he deals with 15 cases a day involving juvenile offenders.

He criticized the juvenile detention system for not giving its wards work and discipline, and for functioning as a revolving door.

“Minors enter and leave in quick succession,” he said. “Whoever wants to can escape at will.” He said some repeat offenders are brought before him as many as 30 times.

Tania Moreira, a public prosecutor in the Duque de Caxias criminal courts, said death squads serve as a brutal form of control over a chaotic social environment.

“When you kill a street boy, first, you take out one of the worst ones, and you also give an example to the others that helps control them, keep them in line,” she said. “You are exercising social control through fear.”

Moreira said that in most death-squad killings, “we never find out who did it.” No one has been charged in 688 of the 919 homicide cases registered last year in Duque de Caxias.

Death-squad convictions are rare, she said. Witnesses are threatened and sometimes killed.

The judiciary is also susceptible to pressures, she said. She showed a reporter documents relating to the case of Marcio Rodrigues Machado, 15, who in June, 1989, was abducted from his home by hooded men, beaten and shot in the head. Last month, Moreira charged three policemen with the slaying and asked a criminal court judge to order their arrest.

But Judge Rubem Medeiros refused. He held that “the seriousness of the crime, in itself, does not give rise to the necessity of preventive imprisonment.”

At present, 27 men face trial on charges involving death-squad killings in Duque de Caxias. Some trials are scheduled to begin in August, and some of the people who have been charged are in jail, but others are free on their own recognizance or are fugitives.

Most of the 27 are security guards, some are petty merchants and three are policemen, prosecutor Moreira said.

All these cases were brought by a special commission of the state investigative police. Inspector Eide Trindade de Lima, who heads the commission, said it could do more if it weren’t for the fear of witnesses in death-squad cases.

“People are afraid to come in here,” Trindade told a reporter across his desk in a downtown Rio squad room.

He said death squads go unpunished because the justice system is slow, inefficient and easily influenced, while “exaggerated formalism” in the Brazilian criminal code ties the hands of investigators and prosecutors.

“You have to blame the whole legal system,” he said. “Our legislation is a joke.”

Trindade confirmed that members of extermination groups are usually “persons who collect from merchants for acting as security guards.”

“Before,” he said, “the merchants sought out the security guards. Now the security guards seek out the merchants.”

Rampant criminal activity, he said, is the result of social and economic misery that turns abandoned children into criminals.

“Since the government is not providing a solution,” he said, “people there seek another solution, which is violence, the law of the strongest. As long as that (continues), new bandits will appear. . . .

“We will continue to work, but we don’t have hope that the picture will change.”