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The Great Divide: Gated Communities And Street Children

By Joseph Grosso

21 July, 2006

Sao Paulo, South America’s largest metropolis with an estimated population of almost 20 million people, has long been a multicultural zone of contrasts. Built by its coffee industry in the late 19th century with labor supplied by European, mainly Italian, immigrants Sao Paulo went on to become the center of Brazil’s industrial revolution by the mid 20th century.

As the 20th century rolled on internal migration superseded international immigration (although this included a large influx of Japanese immigrants who famously settled in the neighborhood Liberdade) as hundreds of thousands of Nordestinos, migrants from poorer states of northern Brazil, moved into the city spurred on by high growth rates and built what became Sao Paulo’s favelas. Yet while the population has continued to swell, the jobs that attracted the waves of migrants and produced the labor union movement that was at the forefront of opposing the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 have been hemorrhaging. In 1980 industry accounted for 40% of Sao Paulo’s jobs; by 2004 it was down to 15% leaving the city to shift towards a darwinistic service economy while industrial jobs leave for other parts of Brazil and the world. The process has left thousands of workers unemployed and lacking the educational requirements for employment in professional high-tech fields. According to an L.A. Times article in 2004 a particularly hard hit eastern part of the city was suffering from an unemployment rate of 40%.

Added to this is the backdrop of slow overall economic growth the past two decades (Brazil’s economy had grown at over 6% annually from 1940-1980, while only 1.25% during the “lost decade” of the 1980s) with many years plagued by devastating inflation, that has left Brazil struggling with enormous public debt and often at the mercy of the IMF. Real wages fell from 2001-2003 and despite a currently booming agribusiness sector poverty rates have not been dented.

Corresponding to the surge in unemployment has been a large increase in crime making Sao Paulo one of the world’s most violent metropolises with a murder rate that in recent years has dwarfed major American cities. Along with the large amount
of violent crime Sao Paulo state processes an extremely overcrowded prison system often stocked with prison guards who resort to brutal treatment, including the use of torture, to enforce discipline. A 2005 U.S. State Department report on Brazil’s prison systems bluntly states:

Prisoners were subjected to unhealthy medical and sanitary
conditions. Scabies and tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis,
were widespread in Sao Paulo State prisons…The Ministry of
Health reported the frequent incidence of skin infections,
respiratory problems, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases,
and tuberculosis among the general prison population of Sao
Paulo State...Denial of first aid and other medical care
sometimes was used as a form of punishment.

Under such conditions inevitable large prisoner uprisings take place every few years, particularly in 1992 which culminated in the infamous and brutal massacre of 111 inmates in the Carandiru prison and in 2001, with an uprising that made headlines around the world inmates took an estimated 25,000 people hostage seizing control of 29 prisons.

As with all metropolises with a large unemployed population and high crime rates, many wealthier residents are choosing to seclude themselves into well fortified, luxurious, gated communities. Sao Paulo’s most Disney Land version of this is a place called Alphaville (the name translates into something like “First City”). Alphaville, built in the 1970s and expanded since, consists of 33 gated areas, secured by private guards, with over 20,000 residences; there are over 2000 businesses and a daily movement of 150,000 people within the area. Alphaville contains about a dozen schools and universities and most developments are equipped with social clubs for residents including soccer fields, golf courses, and tennis courts, as well as swanky restaurants and bars. The development company, Alphaville Urbanismo, provides most of the local civil and security work. Due to the high traffic and demand the Castelo Branco Highway was expanded to include a tolled road specifically for entrance to Alphaville.

While the residents of Alphaville live it up behind guarded walls, approximately 20% of Paulistas live in the metropolis’ teeming favelas. In her highly praised book City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo, Teresa Caldeira sums up Sao Paulo like this:

With its sixteen million inhabitants, industries, and skyscrapers,
high tech offices and favelas, sophisticated subways and high
infant mortality rates, satellite communications and low
literacy levels, the metropolis has become a symbol of a poor
but modern industrial consumer society, heterogeneous and
deeply unequal.

As was noted above every now and again these vast contrasts explode to the surface. An extreme instance of this occurred recently during a five day period beginning on May 12th. It was then that in response to a prison transfer of 765 of their members to a maximum security prison in a distant corner of the state the large and powerful gang known as the First Command of the Capital (PCC) began a coordinated campaign of gang violence unprecedented in Sao Paulo’s history.

Having roots in Sao Paulo’s horrendous correctional facilities and the demand for better conditions, the PCC, formed in 1993 in the wake of the Carandiru massacre and fueled by Brazil’s growing cocaine trade, has grown up to 30,000 members and taken informal control of many state prisons. Using smuggled cell phones PCC leaders organized attacks on police stations, public buses, and banks. The attacks on police, including the use of hand grenades and machine guns, left 41 cops dead while revolts inside various prisoners took hundreds of hostages. The Sao Paulo police, notorious for brutality and corruption- the police kill hundreds of suspected criminals a year, draconian policies tacitly supported by “tough on crime” politicians and middle and upper class voters, responded with what human rights groups described as retaliatory executions, killing 110 suspected gang members- in the Guarulhos district police reportedly shot 24 suspects in the head. In total the almost week’s worth of violence left 170 people dead including four innocent bystanders. Media reports stated that the violence subsided only after negotiations between the cops and gang leaders that included demands for better prison conditions (including perhaps a demand for TVs to the World Cup), though police deny any negotiations took place.

Two days after the violence subsided Sao Paulo’s state governor, a member of the right-wing Liberal Front Party, sounding quite left-wing publicly stated “All this has been a big wake up for Brazil. The social situation is the cancer for crime and it is bigger than we imagined…We have a white minority that is very perverse. The bourgeoisie will have to open their pockets to lift the misery so there are more jobs, more education”.

Meanwhile two months after violence rocked the metropolis in May, state prison guards have gone on strike to protest the recent execution style killings of four off duty guards and attempted murder of two others; another guard was killed on duty, each within a seven day period with the PCC as prime suspects. At the same time in the Araraquara prison, which was seriously damaged in May’s riot, about 1600 inmates have been jammed into a cell block originally built for 160. With the guards having abandoned the prison and welded the doors shut food is thrown to inmates from across the prison wall.

This past week violence has surged again with around 100 attacks on civilian and police targets featuring automatic weapons and homemade bombs, including the torching of more than 50 buses.

In The Lexus and the Olive Branch, one of his earlier love sonnets to neoliberalism, Thomas Friedman had this to say when exploring the possibility of any potential political or economic backlashes to corporate globalization:

What I think will happen is that the turtles and all those
who can’t keep up are not going to bother with an alternative
ideology. Their backlash will take a different form. They will
just eat the rain forest…In Indonesia, they will eat the Chinese
merchants by ransacking their stores. In Russia, they will sell
weapons to Iran or turn to crime…They only have their unmet
needs and aspirations. That’s why what we have been seeing in
many countries, instead of popular mass opposition to globalization, is wave after wave of crime- people just grabbing what they need, weaving their own safety nets and not worrying about theory or ideology.

The above was written a decade ago and it’s safe to say Friedman was more wrong than right, considering the rise of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. However Sao Paulo’s PCC hasn’t been the only street gang to commit recent instances of shocking violence. In December 2004 a bus traveling through the Honduran city of Chamalecon was stopped and surrounded by gunmen who proceeded to open fire randomly killing 28 passengers. The assailants were members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) warning the government against continuing its crackdown on gang activity. MS-13 battles its rival gang Mara 18 (M-18) for control of neighborhoods throughout Central America (both gangs were originally spawned in the barrios of Los Angeles; members were deported under tougher post-riot immigration and criminal laws). There are now 70,000-100,000 gang members in the region involved in everything from drugs to car-theft to migrant smuggling.

In Jamaica, the island with some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the world and a murder rate 10 times higher than the U.S., rival gangs named One Order and the Clansman mark their territories with barricades of old refrigerators, junked cars, and burning tires; during times of tension younger males who venture to cross the line risk being shot on sight. Post-apartheid South Africa, with laissez-faire its environment, continues to have some of the highest crime rates in the world and a population that frequently resorts to forms of vigilantism and high-tech home security, highlighted by “security villages” surround by highly juiced electronic fences; over 20,000 people a year die from violence.

With the retreat of the state during the IMF structural reforms of the 80s and 90s leaving a wide social gulf between elites and masses, the resulting vacuum has been filled by local, nonstate actors: fundamentalists and gangs. Pentecostalism, with its “faith healing” component, has been arguably the most successful social movement of the past century growing exponentially in the developing world; Islamists have risen to power in weak states in Palestine and Somalia, very nearly achieving power in Algeria and only somewhat dethroned in Afghanistan. And while the international press focuses on national elections, large street gangs are the true power brokers in many of the planet’s urban slums. As elites retreat to gated “edge cities”(expanding rapidly throughout the world the past decade particularly in societies with the most unequal income distribution such as the U.S., South Africa, Brazil, and China), and commerce becomes globalized- connecting elites across borders with the cheapest possible labor to the detriment of alienated slum dwelling locals, gangs have stepped into the void.

Writing in Foreign Affairs John Rapley, after describing various systems of control Jamaican gangs use in their territories including taxing local businesses in protection rackets, holding street corner courts, and providing a basic welfare safety net for neighborhood people, succinctly sums up the unequal state of affairs:

As more prosperous players plug into a global economy
and their production relies less on local labor, they retreat
into secure enclaves protected by private security forces…
Marginalized communities have essentially done the same thing,
using a different of private security force- the gang- to maintain
order in the global cities’ multiplying and expanding ghettos.

After two decades of economic neoliberalism, cheaply referred to as “globalization”, per capita income in Africa declined by 15% from 1980-2000; Latin American per capita income grew by only 7% over the same period. Growth since 2000 hasn’t been impressive outside of India and China, both of which however are becoming highly polarized. More than one billion people in the world live on less than one dollar a day; nearly three billion survive on less than two dollars per day. With the continued expansion of the world’s population, expected to reach about 10 billion by 2050, along with the intense urbanization of the world in the form of mega-slums (by 2015 there will be at least 550 cities with a population of more than one million-much of this urban growth will be borne by smaller, poorer urban areas1), and the further effects of AIDS, these pressures will increase leaving countless people exposed to desperation and failed states, with them religious fundamentalism, ethnic and political demagoguery, and ready access to surplus weapons.

Out of the above mix come not only child exploiting street gangs but also the appalling spectacle of the child soldier enslaved in warlord dominated militias. While concrete numbers are impossible to know, a report by the Quaker UN Offices-Geneva published in 1998 estimated that there were more than 300,000 children in conflicts at that time; Since then the numbers figure to have decreased due to the end of several wars in Africa (it is estimated that around 120,000 children have been soldiers in Africa).

As warfare over the past century has shifted its devastation away from dueling armies on isolated battlefields to civilians and noncombatants (civilians constituted only an estimated 5-10% of casualties in World War I; this number increased to 50% in World War II, while wars in the Balkans and Africa have seen civilian casualty rates of 90%), children have become particularly vulnerable. Over the past decade more than two million children have been killed by war, six million have been injured, and over twenty million were made refugees.2

In his horrifying and informative book Children at War, P.W. Singer demonstrates that the issue of children in conflict is quite new:

The generally accepted estimate is that well over
300,000 children are currently fighting in wars or have recently
been demobilized…To some, 300,000 is an immense number,
while others might note that relative to the overall number
of armed personnel in the world, it is a small percentage…What is significant is that this number was near zero just a few decades ago… In sum, while there were isolated instances in which children did serve in armies or other groups at war, a general norm held against child soldiers the last four millennia of warfare….Moreover children were never an integral or essential part of any of the limited number of forces they served in.

Compare the above with West Africa the past decade. In late 1989 the now indicted war criminal Charles Taylor invaded Liberia with a small group of rag-tags, eventually sparking a civil war that killed as many as 200,000 people while displacing many more. The violence went on to engulf the surrounding region when in 1991 the nihilistic RUF (Revolutionary United Front), supported by Taylor, began its vicious bid to take over next door Sierra Leone. Estimates are that up to 80% of the RUF, famous for its choice tactics of hacking the limbs off of unarmed civilians, were children age 7-14. Liberia’s civil war also featured child soldiers- UN estimates put the number at 15,000 children. Many of these were forcibly recruited or abducted and those who “volunteered” usually did so with the desire for revenge against past abuses to family members or with the perception that joining a militia was their only chance of survival.

Once inside the children (both boys and girls) received quick military training with relatively easy to use automatic weapons and were often used as the first wave of attack (a tactic made famous by Iranian forces in their war with Iraq when child soldier led human wave attacks were sent to weaken Iraqi defenses). Girl fighters often were used as sex slaves or “wives” to militia commanders. A Human Rights Watch report in 2003 describes that children in Liberia’s war faced beatings, torture, and other punishments for alleged infractions of militia rules and were complicit in crimes against civilians.

Before being sent off into combat children in both conflicts were often drugged in order to increase courage and dull conscience. Douglas Farah, in Blood from Stones, describes the process succinctly:

One thing the children do remember vividly is the preparation for what they called “mayhem days”, sprees of killing and raping that lasted until the participants collapsed from exhaustion. They said they were given colored pills, most likely amphetamines, and razor blade slits near their temples, where cocaine was put directly into their bloodstreams. The ensuing days were a blur; the children often remembered only the feeling of being invisible, before the drugs wore off

West Africa hasn’t been the only region to have currently or recently seen the use of child soldiers. The LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in Uganda, a cultish group well known for abducting children in northern Uganda and making them sex slaves- in some instances forcing them to kill family members, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelamin) in Sri Lanka, and both the FARC and AUC in Colombia (guerilla squads include girls as young as eight) all use child soldiers. Both sides of Sudan’s recently ended civil war also used child soldiers (numbers of child soldiers in Sudan may be the highest in the world) and Myanmar’s military government widely recruits children to fill its ranks. Children soldiers were also used in wars in Angola, DR Congo, Rwanda, and Afghanistan.

Studies conducted by the International Labor Office (ILO), along with reports by human rights groups, reveal a consistency surrounding the circumstances why children become involved in armed conflict. A study in 2003 by the ILO of child soldiers in Burundi, the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda concludes:

For many child “volunteers”, joining the armed group was an escape from a situation in which they were marginalized either at school or in the family…Once in the armed group children are treated the same way as adults. They are real soldiers recruited for combat, but being insufficiently trained and equipped they are even more exposed than adults to all the dangers…
One cannot consider this to be a real choice on their part because the large majority of them were desperately searching for a means of subsistence and, in the context of war, this was the most plausible solution for survival. (quotations in the original)3

A year later another study published by the ILO, titled Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight, concluded that the very presence of war and the influence, or lack of influence, of families are the most significant factors in children becoming soldiers. War, of course, increases poverty, disrupts family life, stops educational opportunities, and forces otherwise nonviolent citizens into armed groups for their own protection. Families, particularly in generational civil wars, may have long been incorporated into conflict therefore influencing children to become involved or a loss of family members due to war limits opportunities and can spark a desire for revenge. Poor or abusive family lives can also influence children into joining armed groups headed by ruthless warlords happy to use children for cannon fodder.

What is striking from the testimonies of former child soldiers is their lon ing for stable lives beyond conflict and the lack of opportunity to achieve it. Two examples will suffice here, but countless others must be heeded. Here is a 14 year old in Liberia recently recruited to fight in Cote d’Ivoire:

In mid-September I was talking to a friend when my former
MODEL commander called us over…We told him that we wanted
To go to school but there was no money to go. He explained that hewas pulling people together to go on a small mission…I don’t havemoney in Liberia and if I stay here I’d probably be forced to steal and do other bad things…It’s better to go to Ivory Coast and when I’m back I can go to school (HRW, Oct 28th 2005)

A former 12 year old child soldier from DR Congo:

I was farming. One day I went away to the market. There was
Fighting in my village that day, and everybody scattered. When I
came home there was no-one, everyone was gone…I don’t know
where my father and mother are, I had nothing to eat. I joined the
gunmen to get food. I was with the fighters for eight months; there was nothing good about that life, I was always hungry, and sometimes I was sick.
(“From Schoolboy to Soldier”, BBC, September 20, 2003)

It is necessary that the international community step up its efforts in protecting children from warfare. Numerous treaties of international law already exist that outlaw the use of child soldiers including the United National Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Geneva Conventions (1949), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) These should be immediately reignited and enforced by the UN Security Council in order to restore the norm of keeping children out of conflict. Penalties for violation by governments can include international isolation and sanctions (with the corresponding arms embargo and travel restrictions).

Beyond international pressure and condemnation it is very critical that the excess flow of small arms be curtailed. At the end of the Cold War excess arms were dumped on the global market to the point where various guns and other arms can be purchased at cut throat prices in poor countries many of which find their way into the hands of “street children” and rogue militias. Stemming this flow of weapons will be essential in preventing their use by terrorized children. To this end U.S. policy leaves a lot to be desired. Right- wing, domestic, American politics has succeeded in pressuring the U.S. government, particularly the Bush Administration, in countering any effort to make small arms trading more transparent (most famously at the 2001 UN Illicit Trade in Small Arms).

Finally, and most important, is improving the atmosphere in which millions of the world’s children find themselves daily. As populations expand and environmental issues relating to water resources and global warming gain inevitable prominence it is critical that sustainable economic development policies be enacted that put the interests of the majority of the world’s people ahead of the powerful few. For far too long the failed states that produce desperate poverty have been victims of local corruption and repression as well as cynical “realpolitic” and exploitation by global powers.

If young people are to not be soldiers in dirty wars or inmates in uninhabitable prisons, then the world as a whole must provide a deserving alternative.

1 Davis Mike, “Planet of Slums”, New Left Review, March-April 2004

2 Machel, Graca, The Impact of War on Children, Palgrave, 2001 (UN Publication)

3 Wounded Childhood: The Use of Children in Armed Conflict in Central Africa, International Labor Office, April 2003









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