As Brazil held a referendum on banning the sale of guns and
ammunition, Jo Wright visited some of Rio de Janeiro's slums, or favelas, where
many residents live with the constant threat of gun violence from heavily
armed drug traffickers. The names of the favela residents have been
In the favelas, buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes and youths
with military-style small arms patrol the streets at night. Incursions
by police or rival factions can happen at any time.
Jefferson is an 18-year-old former drug trafficker. Where he lives,
gangs have dragged concrete pillars across the street to stop police, and
murals of Osama Bin Laden are painted on the walls. Many people there
have lost several relatives to the violence.
Jefferson says the gun battles affect everybody in the favelas,
including the children.
There are an estimated 17 million guns in Brazil
"They can't play in the street. Half their childhood is spoilt. Every
time the fireworks go off [let off by child lookouts to warn of
incursions] their mothers yell at them to get inside," he says.
"People can't stand at the bar and have a drink normally - fireworks go
off and they have to find shelter."
According to the Small Arms Survey there are an estimated 17 million
guns in Brazil, with 49% held legally, 28% held illegally and used
informally, and 23% used to commit crimes.
While machine guns and assault rifles make the headlines they make up
only a tiny proportion of the weapons available, and are rarely used
outside areas controlled by drug traffickers.
"They are used in confrontations with the police or other bandits. They
are not used to assault you on Copacabana beach," says Antonio Rangel
Bandeira, the co-ordinator of the arms control programme at the
Rio-based NGO Viva Rio.
Statistics show most guns seized during criminal activities are Brazilian-made revolvers and pistols.
Mr Bandeira says that impulsive shootings driven by revenge and
jealousy are major problems and happen across all social classes.
He adds that since the firearm law was tightened at the end of 2003 the
cost of pistols and revolvers has increased in the criminal market,
indicating less availability.
In the city's Souza Aguiar Hospital, Brazil's leading gunshot injury
unit, surgeon Jose Alfredo Padilha says that since the 1990s, when
machine guns and assault rifles started to be used to protect the fixed drug
sales points, victims of gunfire have increasingly been going straight
to the morgue.
His colleague, Dr Amin Waked, adds: "Now we have military guns in the
hands of civilians. They have a very, very high velocity... if you
survive it is only luck. It means you were only hit in a minor area."
Residents of favela communities whose lives are dominated by the small
minority of heavily armed criminals do not speak out openly for fear of
being killed, thrown out of their homes or tortured. They are too
afraid to be photographed.
Jefferson says he took part in the execution of a 15-year-old friend
who passed information to the police.
"The chief of the traffic [gang] called everybody together and there
was a long conversation from midnight until 3am.
"We shot him right there, in the school. He just kept quiet. He knew
he was going to die. I fired some of the shots, but it wasn't mine that
killed him," he says, fighting back tears.
"First we shot him, then used an electric saw to cut him up and put
parts of him in a suitcase. His torso was left in the road. It is a way of
imposing respect. Other informers are frightened and the community
knows not to grass."
In a hillside favela at night, with a view of the lights of the city's
business district, a youth of about 18 proudly introduces himself as a
"bandido" (bandit), then as a "soldado" (a soldier, who defends his
gang's territory and invades areas controlled by rival factions).
He shows off a clip of ammunition and a silver pistol on his waist,
while constantly scanning the steep access road where a police patrol car
is parked behind a building a couple of hundred metres away.
On another hill, at 7pm a boy of about 16 walks into a corner shop and
rests the tip of his rifle on the floor as he is served by an elderly
Assault rifles are said to be available for under $4,400
The next day people on their way to work pass drug sales points guarded
by armed teenagers.
The family I have spent the night with regularly see tracer ammunition,
used by drug traffickers to intimidate rival factions and police.
Bullets have smashed into their house.
"My vision of life is we are not living, just surviving. There are a
lot of people here and we are just all trying to survive," says
Many favela residents say they fear police violence more than drug
traffickers. In 2003, 1,195 civilian deaths were registered as a result of
operations by the state police.
Most of these deaths took place in poorer communities and human rights
activists blame repressive police tactics designed to "eliminate" drug
Jefferson says that social projects to stop children becoming
traffickers would make more difference than disarmament.
"No-one in the traffic is buying guns in shops," he says.
Former traffickers claim that assault rifles can be bought with the
help of corrupt police for $4,380 (£2,500). Pistols, popular because they
are easy to conceal, cost less than $350 (£200).
This year "Operation Razor on the Flesh" was launched to crack down on police corruption and brutality. Social projects and a programme of community policing are proving effective at protecting communities in a few areas. The secretary of public security, Marcelo Itagiba, states that since the 1990s gun seizures have increased dramatically and the number of murders fallen.
Luke Dowdney, of Viva Rio, says that stricter regulation of gun
registration will make arms easier to trace and increasingly difficult to be
diverted through corruption.
"Disarmament can only lessen the number of guns entering the criminal
market. It is going to have an effect. It's not going to happen straight
away but there will be a difference in a year or so... ultimately there
will be less people getting killed," he says.
But campaigners who oppose the ban say its enforcement would allow
"bandits" to threaten people's security.
Maria, whose sister was shot dead by a jealous ex-boyfriend, agrees.
She does not think disarmament would change the situation in the favelas.
"If I had the money I would have a weapon to try to protect myself and
my family. The police are never going to arrive in time and if they do
they may kill you."