According to a recent study, youth homicide has skyrocketed in Brazil over the past 30 years, growing by over 300 percent, a possible result of the expanded drug trade that has placed young people at ever increasing risk as gangs seek to recruit them.
The study by sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, entitled the “2012 Map of Violence: Children and Teens of Brazil,” revealed that from 1980-2010, Brazil’s homicide rate for people aged 19 and below climbed 346 percent to 13.8 per 100,000. This compares to an increase of 124 percent for overall homicides in the same period to 26.2 per 100,000, according to another study by Waiselfisz. In other words, youths were murdered at a rate that increased almost three times as fast as that of the general population.
According to the report, 19 year olds were the worst affected age group between 2000 and 2010, with a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000 – more than twice the national level. Though this age was the worst hit, the rate held steady over the decade. In contrast, 13 to 18 year-olds all saw a rise in their respective homicide rates, with 17 year-olds seeing the biggest jump from 44.2 per 100,000 in 2000 to 52.5 in 2010.
This exponential growth in youth homicide, especially for adolescent males (females constitute around 10 percent of youth homicide victims), coincides with the growth and evolution of the drug trade in Brazil over the last three decades, a phenomenon which has increasingly absorbed young people.
In a 2003 study of youth involvement in drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro, one former child drug trafficker active in the 1970s described how the arrival of the cocaine trade in the city meant gangs increasingly turned to youths as a source of man-power. A 2007 report by De Spiegel supported this, showing how gangs would target children for employment, plying them with drugs to desensitize them to acts of violence they were made to carry out.
Brazil initially served as a transit point for cocaine on its way to Europe and eventually grew into a key market for traffickers. The evolution of the domestic market — Brazil is now the biggest consumer of cocaine in the region — has meant the spread of the drug trade throughout the country rather than remaining concentrated in traditional organized crime hubs like Rio and São Paulo. Alongside this rise in cocaine use and the proliferation of local markets has been the spread of other drugs, for example crack cocaine which over the last decade has moved outside of São Paulo where it was confined throughout much of the 1990s, according to the Associated Press.
The government has made a concerted effort to increase security in the country’s major cities in recent years, something which could explain why rates of youth homicide in Rio and São Paulo have fallen in the past decade, by 34 and 76 percent respectively. However, this security drive has contributed to many gangs being forced to set up operations in other parts of Brazil, which are, possibly as a result, now seeing the biggest rise in youth homicide. One area particularly hit by the spread of drug gangs has been·the north and northeast of the country. For example, Bahia state, of which Salvador is capital, saw a jump of more than 500 percent in its youth homicide levels, while Para’s and Rio Grande do Norte’s rates increased almost four-fold from 2000 to 2010.
Brazil’s overall youth homicide rate of 13.8 per 100,000 makes the country a more dangerous place for youths than both Guatemala and Colombia, who had rates of 12.1 and 11.4 respectively in 2008. This is particularly suprising in the case of Colombia, whose criminal gangs, as well as its guerrilla armies the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and ELN are known to actively recruit children. According to the International Crisis Group, the average age of a FARC recruit is 12 years old. In Guatemala, meanwhile, the rate of youths in gangs has led President Otto Perez to push for courts to try children as young as 12.
Brazil’s youths do not face internal conflict, as some of Colombia’s do, nor is the country afflicted by drug violence to the same degree as Guatemala which has a homicide rate of close to 42 per 100,000, yet it appears that statistically they are actually in greater danger.
In the study’s own words, “Homicides in general, and of adolescents and youths in particular, has become the Achilles heel of human rights in the country, due to its heavy incidence in the sectors of society considered vulnerable, or specifically protected: children, adolescents, young and old people, women, blacks, etc.” The study’s conclusions may be broad but they are difficult to contest. While Brazil has made significant progress in terms of public security, an epidemic of youth homicide, linked to new trends in organized crime, like the spread of criminal groups and the introduction of new drugs, has emerged to challenge the notion that the country is becoming fundamentally more secure, especially for its most vulnerable population.