Citizen security, urban violence and youth: the Brazil case

An exclusive article for the montlhy newsletter “En la mira – The Latin American Small Arms Watch.” Click here for subscriptions and for previous issues.

Latin America, with only 14% of the world's population, is responsible for 42% of firearms related homicides in the entire world. 1 Observing these statistics in the case of Brazil, the numbers are alarming: with less than 3% of the worldwide population, it is responsible for 11% of firearms related deaths occurring yearly in the entire world 2, which represents a fourth of all deaths occurring in the region.

This is why it isn't unusual that the several governmental authorities as well as communication channels, including NGOs, are currently concentrating their agendas on the debate about Reform of the Security Sector, the role of the police, the control of proliferation of firearms, how the presence of militias and groups linked to drug trafficking affect citizen security, and the need to think about adequate means and policies to confront this problem.

Since the beginning of the year 2000, Viva Rio has been studying the phenomenon of youth who participate in drug trafficking factions that dominate many of the slums (favelas) of Rio de Janeiro. This phenomenon has been defined as “those youths who are employed by, or who participate in some way in organizations in which armed violence is used, and which have elements of structured control and power and this control is exercised over a certain territory, over the local population and its resources.” This group of people has been named COAV (Children and Youth in Organized Armed Violence) 3. Some of the typologies of these organizations receive multiple names according to the place (such as factions, gangs, nations, drug trafficking factions, militias, etc.). They are present in contexts of war as well as in countries which are not at war, but where peace also does not prevail. 

Youth as Victims and Executioners

It is rare to find cases in which youth, boys or girls are associated with armed groups in an undeniably forced manner, since the majority of these groups does not actively recruit 4. However, it is also problematic to say that every young person who is associated with an armed group does so willingly, because the environment in which young members of armed groups find themselves offers few alternatives and exercises influence that pressure them to join a drug trafficking faction.

The entry of boys and girls 5  into armed groups in the Brazilian scenario occurs for different reasons. Some of these reasons are:

- Access to consumer goods: This is intimately linked to obtaining social status;

- The lack of alternatives: The illusion of wealth that the groups offer to boys and girls from poor environments is reinforced by the few options for obtaining sustenance;

- Access to weapons, to a social position: Weapons are frequently an object of fascination for young people. They are attractive in an environment with few possibilities for social elevation, since having a gun automatically places its bearer in a position of status and power with his or her peers in relation to the rest of the community;

- Poverty: Armed groups offer financial remuneration to their members, whether in the form of fixed salaries, opportunities to sell drugs on a commission basis or as needed infrastructures to commit armed robbery and other crimes – but we have to be very careful about the erroneous concept that poverty criminalizes. The vast majority of inhabitants of these neighborhoods does not get involved in armed violence, which proves that poverty is not the main factor for being allured to the criminal life;

- Identity: Identification and the feeling of belonging to a group are reasons for joining;

- Spending time in the street, friends and substitute families: domestic problems, mainly in families that are oftentimes disorganized, frequently causes boys, girls and adolescents to spend more time in the street. 6

It is important to reflect on this point. Even though it is true that young people participate actively in organized armed groups, the statistics on homicide in Brazil in 2004 also show us that these young people are the main victims 7. In Brazil, for male minors or young males between the ages of 15 and 29, the chances of dying because of homicide are much higher than for any other age group (60.2% of homicides are registered in these two age groups). These are the basic characteristics of the main risk group. The number of female deaths by homicide is much fewer, but the indirect effects of violence on the lives of young girls, teenaged girls and women must also be taken into consideration. 8

Security with Citizenship

In order to act effectively against the emerging phenomenon of the participation of children and youth in organized armed violence, a substantive change is needed in legislations and government programs that would allow the establishment of positive measures such as prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs for those who are also involved in affected communities.

It is necessary to think about short, medium and long term measures to consider effective responses. Short and long term ones may be useful to support current local interventions to strengthen children's and young people's ability to resist and to facilitate their decisions to abandon or not join dominant armed groups in their areas. Prevention and rehabilitation projects for children associated with armed violence are successful when they give children and youth the tools to respond to external risk factors, offering them solutions that do not include being part of an armed group. In addition to offering sufficient solutions, the projects that are having the most success are showing young people with real cases of people from their own community that “escape is possible” and, an important element, boys, girls and youth receive personalized treatment.  9

In the long term, macro risk factors must be eliminated in order to eliminate the problem completely. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that there are no simple or magic solutions, but as the current Independent Specialist for the United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children indicates, we must move into action: “The situation [of the participation of children in organized armed violence] must be understood as an urgent demand for action, not only because we must contain the violence of armed youth, but also because each child and each adolescent needs his or her rights to be respected to the fullest.” 10

Faced with this situation, and after the work of NGOs in this area, the Federal Government of Brazil, last August 20th, presented the National Program of Public Security with Citizenship (PRONASCI) 11, a public security program in the broader sense, which joins security policies with social activities, prioritizing preventive actions and seeking the causes of violence.


Faced with this debate, the government initiated a series of consultations with various local NGOs to see to what extent these arguments could be refuted and to think about what actions could be put into effect within PRONASCI to legitimize this new approach to the problem. Viva Rio was one of the organizations consulted during this process because of its work in this area locally, regionally and internationally.

Mobilizing Society to Disarm Youth

At the international seminar “Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Security with Citizenship” held in Rio de Janeiro between September 26 and 28, 2007, good practices and lessons learned from various international experiments were heard, which to a greater or lesser degree, are coping with this phenomenon. 12

The disparity of contexts and levels of armed violence were interesting in order to analyze measures of prevention as well as rehabilitation, and to see how the problem was being managed in the face of different situations. For Brazil, where the rates of violence are so different from one region to another in the country, this exercise turned out to be especially interesting. Besides this, it allowed consideration of the entire cycle of involvement of a young person in armed violence, making it possible to think about concrete actions for each moment, and at the same time frame these actions within PRONASCI.

DDR 13  is a program for the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of armed individuals, normally implemented after a war. DDR is an opportunity for building security, and is one of the fundamental ingredients for obtaining stability and constructing peace. By its own nature, this type of program converts armed individuals into active ones for economic and social reintegration. Even though the majority of cases are concentrated on armed individuals, the ultimate objective is to attain the development and reconciliation of the whole community.

- Disarmament: weapons collection and control, of armed individuals as well as the civil population. This phase should also include programs for weapon management and control.

- Demobilization: a formal act by which armed individuals cease their activity.

- Reintegration: the assistance necessary to facilitate access to the basic needs of demobilized persons, as well as their families.

The conclusions of the seminar also serve to put the final touch on this document. The final debate was focused on that fact that, although it is true that the main actors in the high level of violence in Brazil are the drug and highly organized and structured crime factions, with war armaments and training as was already reiterated, Brazil is not in what could be considered a war situation. But at the same time this should not be an impediment, because it is a democratic country, developed and with fully constituted institutions. Wouldn't it, precisely because of all this, be easier to apply some of the international tools for reducing violence in these cases? But what are these tools and how can they be implemented by adopting them for the Brazilian scenario? This is the process that is currently under discussion.

This process, which is being initiated now, must concentrate its actions on disarming organized armed groups, mobilizing society and integrating marginalized youth into society, which has come to be called a process of Mobilization, Disarmament and Integration (MDI). Some concrete actions within this MDI would be: A) to give emphasis to youth, because they are the ones who must initiate the process of exiting the groups linked to drug trafficking; b) to continue weapons collection campaigns and the defense of the current Disarmament Statute (legislation for the control of weapons, which brought about a reduction in the number of homicides all over the country); and c) to integrate all those boys, girls and youth who have never until now, had access and could now have access to government social programs. 14

1 OMS (2002) World Report on Violence and Health, OMS, Geneva.
2 Ibid.

3 More information about this at:
4 Dowdney, Luke (2005) Neither War nor Peace. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letters, pg. 93.
5 Convention on Children's Rights, in article 1, considers as children all those under age 18. Brazilian law (Law 8.069/90 – ECA), in article 2, considers as children all those under as 12 and adolescents as all those between ages 12 and 18. 
6 Opus Cit. Dowdney, Luke (2005), pgs. 89-95.
7 Iser, 2004 data, homicide rates per 100 in habitants
8 Galeria, Jessica and Moura, Tatiana (2006) Women and girls in contexts of armed violence: A case study about Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro.
9 Pérez, Rebeca and Huguet, Clarissa (2007) “Children and Organized Armed Violence.” Child Soldiers Newsletter  No.15, London at
10 United Nations (2006) Study by the UN Secretary General on Violence against Children (A/61/299). New York.
11 For more information about PRONASCI, see
12 To learn more about this Seminar, see
13 Gleichman, Colin and Odenwald, Michael (et al) (2004) Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration. Frankfurt: GTZ, Nodefic, PPC, SNDC.
14 To see more information about the seminar, enter the portal


Very interesting

This is a great article. Thanks for posting.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Copy the characters (respecting upper/lower case) from the image.