Latin America
2:15 pm
Tue April 30, 2013

As Youth Crime Spikes, Brazil Struggles For Answers

Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 8:34 am

In Rio de Janeiro, tourists are drawn to Copacabana for its wide beach and foliage-covered cliffs. But a month ago, 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 past 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.

Andre Martins, an associate professor at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, 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 day care. 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 the student's cellphone.

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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We now turn to Brazil. Crime has been in the headlines there, especially as Brazil prepares to host two huge sporting events, the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. And a recent spate of attacks by minors has kicked off a debate. Increasingly, children in Brazil are not only victims of violence, but perpetrators.

The country is struggling with what to do about it, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Rio de Janeiro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Copacabana Beach, where I am now, is the tourist hub in Rio. Its wide beach and foliage covered cliffs, a real draw. This month, not far from here, an American woman and her partner were abducted. She was brutally gang raped. He was beaten. But what was most shocking about the crime to Brazilians were the ages of two of the accomplices.

SYLVIA RUMPOLDT: Why? That's what you ask yourself. It's horrible. It's criminal energy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sylvia Rumpoldt is walking at dusk by the sea in Rio with her friend Maria de Paula. They say that can't believe one of those arrested was barely into his teens.

MARIA DE PAULA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She agrees. What's happening with children in Brazil is barbaric, Maria de Paula also says.

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: A gang of 10-year-olds was apprehended this month for using toy guns to hold up commuters at traffic lights.

The reasons for the rise in youth crime are complex, say experts.

ANDREA MARTINS: My name is Andrea Martins. I'm an associate professor at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martins is a psychiatrist who has studied troubled teens. He says in some ways the surge in youth crime is a product of Brazil's economic boom.

MARTINS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the one hand, Brazilian children have no proper pre-school, there is no day care, he says. Kids grow up on the streets from an early age in the poorer areas. They have not learned empathy or how to deal with others, he says. And then they're bombarded with the message that they have to consume. But they don't have access to what they want. And so they try and get it at any price, Martins says.

Add to that the problem of drugs - there is a crack epidemic in Brazil - and you have a lethal mix, he says.

For many, the answer to the problem here is tougher measures against juvenile offenders.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hundreds of people gathered on a recent weekend to demand that the age of criminal responsibility be lowered from 18 to 16 in Brazil. The wave of protests were prompted by another headline-grabbing incident this month. A 19-year-old university student was killed by a 17-year-old recidivist who was trying to steal his cell phone.

Airton Deppman is the uncle of the murdered college student

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

AIRTON DEPPMAN: We are fighting here to change this law that we believe is not making justice, for the people that are struggling to make a better society here in Brazil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a poll carried out last week, a whopping 93 percent of people agree the law should change. But activists and psychologists who work with minors say doling out more punishment isn't the answer.

A group of children mimic their teacher as they learn dance steps during a midmorning class in a poor area of Sao Paulo. It's part of a program run by the Maria Helen Drexel Association that takes street kids and fosters them in more stable environments. The aim says program founder Father Joao Drexel 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.

FATHER JOAO DREXEL: So the children that come today are much more difficult than 20 years ago or 30 years ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says putting younger teens in prison won't help the situation. Brazil has to address the underlying causes of the violence.

DREXEL: Our government has not invested in housing, has not invested in health, has not invested in education.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says an entire generation is growing up at risk.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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