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The study of juvenile delinquency in Brazil is intertwined with the study of general crime. Given the similarities between the types of crimes committed by juveniles and adults, it is useful to examine the general trends in academic research on crime causation. Current research on crime causation and crime trends has its origins in two specific debates regarding the initial rise in violent urban crime in the mid-1980s. The first of these debates is centered on debunking common sense perceptions of poverty as the primary cause of crime.

Unlike in the United States, where academic research has found support for theories that link poverty to crime, such as anomie theory and subculture theories of violence, the academic research in Brazil have focused on countering the link between poverty and crime. This was done in response to public opinion about the causes of crime. Public perceptions of crime in urban Brazil depicted (and still depict) criminals as poor youth from the shantytowns or favelas. Thus, some of this research is aimed at demonstrating the bias of the criminal justice system toward repressing crime committed by such youth, even though crime is present in all social groups (Zaluar 1994). Other research has sought to dispel this public perception through the analysis of official data, demonstrating the spuriousness of the relationship between poverty and crime (Beato et al. 1998).

The second debate focuses on the role of the criminal justice system in contributing to the rise in crime. Some authors have pointed out to the relationship between the rise of crime and the lack of the deterrent capacity of the criminal justice system. They argue that reforms and improvements in the criminal justice system rather than social policies will have greater impacts on crime rates (Coelho 1978; Beato Filho et al. 2004). Others have explained rising crime rates as a consequence of the arbitrary action of the police and its impact on the legitimacy of the State, both as an entity with the monopoly over the use of force and as a mediator of conflicts. They specifically examined the role of the legacy of Brazil’s 20-year dictatorship and its return to democracy in the 1980s as part of the explanation for the arbitrary nature of police behavior and practices (Adorno 1999; Cardia 2008; Caldeira 2000).

Current research on crime causation builds upon each of these original debates. Emerging out of the original discussion of poverty and crime is a body of current research reexamining the role of inequality (specifically income inequality) in the growth of urban crime. Rather than exclusively associating poverty with crime, these scholars examine the impact of inequalities of opportunities in the commission of crime (Beato Filho et al. 2004), as well as explanations for the spatial distribution of violent crime (especially homicide) in poor neighborhoods (Beato et al. 2001; Cardia 2008). Included here is the work of Brazilian economists, especially in collaboration with the World Bank (Fajnzylber et al. 1998) who examine the links between inequality and crime, as well as others (Andrade and Peixoto 2008) who have begun to examine the economic costs of crime, both in terms of state expenditures and loss of property and lives.

Emerging out of the original discussions of the role of the State and the criminal justice system is a body of work that examines the links between crime, citizenship, and human rights. Much of this work focuses specifically on the criminal justice system and will be covered more extensively in the next section. The research relating to crime causation following this perspective focuses on the impacts of criminal justice practices (especially authoritarian and arbitrary police practices) on crime causation. Also considered in these explanations is the level of impunity (crimes not prosecuted) of the criminal justice system and the implications of Brazil’s democratic transition and the impact on the level of crime (Adorno 1998; Caldeira and Holston 1999).

However, these two central explanations for the causes of crime do not specifically examine one important feature of youth crime, the intersection of juvenile crime (especially theft, drug trafficking, and homicide) with participation in territorialized youth groups. Drug trafficking can take many forms according to the type of substances sold, sales volume, and distribution strategies, among other features. However, based on the profile of juveniles serving sentences for drug trafficking in Brazil—black or brown, with low education and residents of the urban periphery and slums—it can be inferred that a significant proportion of juveniles arrested for drug trafficking participate in street-level retail sales that are highly territorialized through the divisions of slums and peripheral urban areas into competitive drug sale points, often with hierarchical organization and the intensive use of young people as labor. In this specific model of drug trafficking, criminal practice emerges as a stable and high source of income if we take into account the low level of education of these young people. As an occupation, drug trafficking, in this format, resembles to some extent formal employment, with fixed income expectations, clearly defined responsibilities, and even the ability to climb the hierarchy of the local organization, shifting to jobs that are more profitable and less exposed to police surveillance (Teixeira 2013).

However, this model of drug trafficking present in the slums and other poor urban neighborhoods in Brazil produces a number of other consequences. Each drug sale point, as well as their operators, is part of the larger community, but also makes up a micro-territory to be defended from drug gangs from other territories, as well as from police raids. This territorial control exercised by the drug trade in some neighborhoods makes it necessary for traffickers to arm themselves openly and engage in violent clashes with rivals for control of these territories and their points of sale (Zaluar 1994; Zilli 2011).

Research that has examined the social organization of drug trafficking (Zaluar 2004; Alvito 2001; Dowdney 2003; Mingardi 1998) attempts to understand the patterns of drug trafficking and the reasons for juvenile participation in drug trafficking gangs. This research draws heavily from theorists examining patterns of social interactions and civility such as Norbert Elias (1994), rather than classic gang research from the United States.

Beyond drug trafficking, another phenomenon that may account for the involvement of adolescents in crime in Brazil is armed youth groups, whether they be called gangs, bands, or crews. Much like juvenile gangs described in the classical sociological literature, these groups stand out for their territorialization, the strong identification of its members with the group, and their violent clashes with similar groups from other regions. These juvenile groups may be associated with the practice of drug trafficking and theft and usually commit such offenses, but they can also be structured through disputes involving graffiti, the funk or rave dance, and party circuit (Abramovay 2010; Andrade 2007; Diogenes 2008) or a dynamic of intra-community retribution and revenge against other gangs’ attacks, which are linked to local rivalries that span years or even decades (Rocha 2015; Zilli 2011).

In some Brazilian cities, the rivalries between these juvenile groups, and the armed clashes resulting from them, are responsible for a significant proportion of homicides involving teenagers and young adults, either as perpetrators or as victims. For example, in Belo Horizonte and in the cities that make up the metropolitan region, a significant proportion of registered homicides committed by juveniles stem from territorialized armed conflict between gangs operating in the slums of the capital and the cities around it (Zilli 2011). These atomized clashes involving numerous groups and their relations of enmity and alliances appear as a major cause of homicides committed by adolescents in several other Brazilian cities as well, such as Fortaleza (Diogenes 2008), Brasilia and its satellite cities (Abramovay 2004; Andrade 2007), and Sao Paulo especially in the decades of 1990 and 2000. Apart from drug trafficking or other criminal practices, the rivalries between these groups and gangs organize and structure the relations of the members with the group itself, making up essential dynamics to the process of gang membership and membership maintenance, since it is by participating in violent clashes with rivals that solidarity among members and group identity are reinforced.

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