Child's Death Underlines Rio's Crime Issues

The gruesome death of a young Brazilian boy emphasizes the daily reality of violent crime in Rio de Janeiro. Experts say the fact that police solve few murders gives criminals a sense of impunity.

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Rio de Janeiro is in mourning. Many residents are dressing in black. This symbolic act is in remembrance of a 6-year-old boy whose gruesome death has shaken the city that is in the midst of a violent crime surge, extraordinary even by Rio's standards.

From Rio de Janeiro, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Rio can seem anesthetized to violence, but few episodes have touched the city as has the death of Joao Helio Fernandes Vieites. He was to be 7 in March but last Wednesday two armed assailants approached his mother's car and ordered everyone out. Before his mother could get Joao Helio out of the back seat, the thieves jumped in and sped off.

Half strapped into his seatbelt, half dangling out of the door. Joao Helio was dragged through the streets of Rio for several miles. After a 10-minute high-speed drive, the teenage gunmen abandoned the car. By then, the boy was dead.

Luiz Eduardo Soares is one of the leading authors and thinkers on crime in Brazil. The former head of Rio's public security says the death of Joao Helio has shaken the country.

Mr. LUIZ EDUARDO SOARES (Former Public Safety Secretary, Rio de Janeiro): We have to face this ugly side of ourselves as a species. It's really terrible. And we ask ourselves what kind of youth we are generating. What kind of youth we are educating, informing, for life.

MCCARTHY: Soares says homicides have become so much a part of daily life but they have lost their singularity, a phenomenon he says is not limited to Brazil. He cites Russia, the Middle East and the United States.

Mr. SOARES: We have to rethink our culture and the way we are developing our countries and materialism, and individualism, and the way we are dealing with life, with mysteries of life, with mysteries of ourselves.

MCCARTHY: Sociologist Julie Det Lemgruber(ph) says there is no mystery behind Rio's ever-increasing crime rate. She says that only two percent of all homicides in the city are actually solved by the police and that a sense of impunity is fueling criminal activity.

Ms. JULIE DET LEMGRUBER (Sociologist): When a criminal is ready to pull a trigger, he doesn't ask himself, am I going to get five years of jail? Ten years, 20 years? This does not count. But what really counts is that am I going to be caught? And this doesn't happen in this state. It just doesn't happen in this country, and this is the problem.

MCCARTHY: While Lemgruber calls the case of 6-year-old Joao Helio tragic, she says there are many more like him that occur far from the glare of publicity.

Ms. LEMGRUBER: This one got a lot of attention, of course, because of the circumstances, because it was a middle-class family. But we shouldn't forget there are very, very young kids being killed by stray bullets in the slums of Rio everyday and nobody cares.

MCCARTHY: Yet the case of small as Joao Helio has become an emblem around which people are rallying. A grainy photograph of the boy is splashed on the cover of one of the country's most widely read magazines. The angry headline in the weekly Veja reads: No limits to barbarity.

The crime moved Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, who says that every Brazilian is guilty for Joao Helios's death. Coelho says blaming an inept government accomplishes nothing.

Mr. PAULO COELHO (Novelist): People find always an excuse or someone to blame. We are responsible. I am somehow the victim and the murderer. I cannot separate these two things.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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