Gun Violence and youth in Brazil’s Urban Centres


The Impact of Firearms on youth in Brazil is of great concern. In Rio de Janeiro, like most of Brazil’s urban centres, firearms kill more young males than all other external causes combined, including disease and motor vehicle injuries of all adolescents aged 15-19 who died in 2002 in Brazil, 30.1 % were victims of firearms. In Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco and Espfrito Santo, over 50%, of juvenile deaths are caused by firearms. Due to the highly lethal nature of gun violence, of every four victims of gunfire who are hospitalised, three die.

The figures for youth seem even more alarming when compared with those for the overall population. Between 1993 and 2002, the number of 15-24 year olds killed increased by 88.6%, compared with a 62.3% increase for the general population – more than four times the population growth rate for that period. Only  Colombia, EI Salvador and Russia registered more firearm-related homicides than Brazil. Gun violence in Brazil is more lethal for youth than some situations of war: while 467 under 18-year-olds were killed as a result of the Israel/Palestine conflict between 1987 and 2001, in the same period 3,937 children were killed by gunfire in Rio alone.

The drug culture

One reason is that, in Brazilian urban settings over the last two decades, young people have become increasingly involved in organised drug trafficking. In Rio, changes in the scale and organisation of the criminal groups that have dominated drug trafficking in the (ave/as (slums) since the 1980s are partially responsible for this trend.

Statistics show a substantial increase in the number of minors detained for involvement in drug­related crime – from 11 in 1980 to 1,584 in 2001. This increase is only partly due to more efficient policing: the 1,340% jump in numbers indicates significantly more adolescents involved in the drug trade. Drug trafficking offers these children and adolescents things that society does not: status; money and access to consumer goods; the possibility of social ascension. It is seen as exciting and has been glorified by “funk” music popular in Rio’s favelas.

Many children view the traffickers as powerful heroes with pretty girlfriends, who refuse to accept the poverty that is a reality for the majority of favela residents. Favela children may also be influenced by parents or friends involved in the drug trade, or come from unstable family situations, but poverty plays a part. Interviews with children and adolescents involved in the drug trade show that those who are the most independent, and who seek to take responsibility for their own lives, often consider the trade to be a means of improving their lot and the best way to meet their needs.

That young people are the main protagonists, not just the victims, highlights the need to invest in them

Controlling small arms

Viva Rio has taken a public health perspective to the problem of gun violence in Brazil – a science-based collective approach that focuses on investigating why violence occurs, exploring ways to prevent violence and implementing what appear to be promising interventions. As small arms are the main vector for the transmission of armed violence, it has been important to understand small arms distribution and ownership within Brazil in order to develop strict control measures. Although young people often become involved in crime and organised armed violence due to a lack of realistic alternatives, it is impossible not to correlate the high levels of lethal violence in Brazil with the high levels of small arms availability. Thus, understanding where the small arms are, who holds them and which types of weapons are used is critical.

As small arms registration was first systematically regulated at a national level in 1997, we can assume that there is a huge informal market ­small arms that, while not necessarily in the hands of criminals, are undeclared and/or unregistered, and thus illicit and more susceptible to being diverted into criminal markets.

A recent study by Viva Rios highlights that violence is concentrated in big urban centres, that Brazil is the second-largest producer of small arms in the Western Hemisphere, and that this production grew massively in the same decade that gun violence began rising.

If controlling the criminal market is a matter of police efficiency and intelligence, controlling the informal market is an even more delicate issue. In 2003 the Brazilian parliament passed a disarmament statute, which includes a buy-back campaign to encourage Brazilian citizens to voluntarily hand over their guns (via cash incentives and amnesties for unregistered guns), and compulsory registering of firearm possession. The campaign collected 385,800 small arms in a 12-month period and is now going to its final phase, with an unprecedented referendum on the prohibition of firearms sales to civilians in Brazil.

Effective governance

Viva Rio’s experience shows that tackling youth violence is a matter of combining universal protection and service delivery policies, with directed policies. Directed policies aim to take into account the nature of the groups involved, with a view to prevention as well as withdrawal/reintegration of youths already involved in crime.

Although gun control policies are very important, the Brazilian government’s sole focus on repressive policing policies over the past 20 years has proved ineffective. Moreover, punitive measures, principally the removal of freedom, tend to cost significantly more than the alternative measures or prevention. Knowing that young people are the main protagonists, as well as victims, of violence, makes clear that socio-economic investment in this age group has great potential to bring about a decline in violence levels.

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