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Everton Candido Alves was 12 years old when he started working for drug lords in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. His mother, who had Aids, had just died and with no father around, drug trafficking seemed the only career choice.
“It’s hard to resist them – they offer you money, power, girls, drugs and funk music parties,” he says, coughing up phlegm on to the dusty football pitch of the Vila Cruzeiro slum where he is refereeing a match between local teenagers.
After suspecting other traffickers were plotting to kill him, he escaped last year with the help of a Dutch non-governmental organisation, which offered him work as a football coach, and his long-suffering wife, who persuaded him to join her evangelical church.
At the age of 31 he has spent more than half of his life in gangs or in prison. He cannot even remember how many people the “devil” made him kill, he says, staring blankly at the ground, a deep scar on his chin.
But by today’s standards, Mr Candido Alves was a late starter at cocaine trafficking – a business that generates revenues of up to R$900m ($391m) a year in the city’s biggest slums, according to Action for Brazil’s Children Trust, a UK charity. Rio’s drug gangs are recruiting boys as young as eight as they build up a legion of child soldiers to get around tougher security in the favelas for the World Cup, which kicks off tomorrow, say community leaders, the police and former traffickers.
Brazil has been praised for such security measures and other ambitious initiatives to prepare the country to host the tournament.
But the often poor execution of these projects has led to a series of darker consequences that few could have imagined: from the rise of Rio’s child soldiers and mass evictions to police violence and the deaths of stadium workers.
“Brazil may still be able to win the World Cup but when it comes to the social impact and the human cost of the tournament, it has already lost,” says Rafael Alcadipani at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, an academic institution in Brazil.
For prospective host nations and their sponsors, the dark underbelly of Brazil’s World Cup reveals the hazards of holding large-scale events in countries still grappling with acute social problems and institutional weaknesses. The strains have been apparent in the streets this week, as riot police have used tear gas on protesters and striking metro workers in São Paulo.
Brazil’s ruling Workers’ party could never have imagined that hosting the World Cup in a football-mad nation could bring it anything other than votes, but a recent Pew Research poll shows that about 60 per cent of Brazilians are against hosting the tournament. Human rights abuses and cost overruns at the $11bn tournament may have already lost the party vital support ahead of presidential elections in October, says Mr Alcadipani.
Rio’s government began a “pacification” programme in 2008 to tackle the criminal gangs that control the more than 1,000 favelas that are home to at least a quarter of the city’s population. After sporadic and largely unsuccessful operations in the past, the programme has been celebrated for establishing 38 police bases across Rio’s slums and is considered the boldest attempt yet to reintroduce the state to no-go areas.
However, in the sewage-filled alleyways of pacified favelas such as Vila Cruzeiro, the job is far from done. While many high-profile traffickers have fled or were captured during the initial police invasion, the drug gangs remain in business and have simply found ways to coexist with the police by keeping weapons and drugs out of sight – and by recruiting more children.
In Brazil, those aged between 13 and 18 years can be detained for up to three years regardless of the crime and leave with no permanent record. Children under the age of 12 are below the age of prosecution, giving them immunity against the police and making them valuable assets for the gangs.
Marcia Ferreira da Costa sees this recruitment process first-hand every week in Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest slums, where she founded Roupa Suja, an NGO, in 1978. “A man will go up to a child and ask him to take a package to the entrance of the favela for R$15 and he does it because R$15 is a lot of money for these kids,” says Ms da Costa, who founded Roupa Suja when she was only 10, helping migrants from Brazil’s poor northeast write letters to their families.
“They start as messengers, then they become lookouts for the police, then they start to sell drugs and if they’re any good they get given their first gun and they become ‘soldiers’, trained to battle the police and protect the boss,” she says.
According to Brazil’s labour ministry, the average age of minors entering drug trafficking gangs fell from between 15 and 16 in the 1990s to between 12 and 13 in the 2000s as the country’s crack cocaine market grew to be the world’s biggest, demanding ever more workers.
However, military police officers in five slums surveyed by the Financial Times agree that a greater number of younger children were drawn into the gangs following the pacification programme.
Tiffany Garside, chief executive of the ABC Trust, says the authorities need to improve the programme by sending in social workers alongside the military police and investing in educational and cultural facilities in the slums.
“A lack of social and public support within communities contributes to a sense of invisibility which leads these young teenagers into the world of crime,” she says.
Such investment will also help ensure the long-term success of the programme by convincing residents of the favelas that pacification is not just a palliative measure to reassure tourists ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics, which Rio will host in 2016, says Sandro Costa, vice-co-ordinator of human security at Viva Rio, an NGO.
In Recife, more than 2,000km northeast of Rio and one of Brazil’s 12 host cities, community workers also have mixed feelings about the World Cup. At the heart of the poor northeast region, Recife has become a magnet for child prostitution in Brazil, a country that is home to half a million child sex workers as of 2012, according to the National Forum for the Prevention of Child Labour.
A surge in child prostitution is inevitable during the tournament, which will attract more than 600,000 tourists, says Sarah de Carvalho, head of Happy Child International, an NGO that is running an awareness campaign backed by the UK government for fans. The closure of schools in host cities during matches will push even more children on to the streets and into prostitution, NGOs warn.
However, Ideli Salvatti, Brazil’s secretary of human rights, says the government is well prepared: it has taken measures such as banning known paedophiles from entering the country and setting up smartphone apps for people to report child abuse. She also dismisses what she sees as unnecessary panic over the World Cup, saying there is no reason the tournament should pose any more risk than the country’s other big events. “Let’s stop with this idea that the World Cup is an exceptionally large event . . . what about carnival in Rio, in Bahia, New Years’ Eve parties?” she says.
While that may be true of child prostitution, the World Cup does pose exceptional risks to other vulnerable groups, says Mr Alcadipani.
The construction and renovation of 12 stadiums – an unprecedented challenge for a country notorious for its infrastructure deficit – has displaced 250,000 people from their homes, according to a report by the Atlantic Council.
There are also fears over the use of excessive force by authorities during expected anti-World Cup protests and strikes. Last month, Amnesty International launched the “No foul play, Brazil” campaign, warning against the same heavy-handed tactics used by the military police during last year’s mass street protests.
Paula Martins, director for South America at Article 19, an NGO, fears the reaction from police may be even worse as the authorities are under pressure to comply with World Cup legislation passed in 2012 that promises only “festive and friendly” demonstrations during the tournament.
About 300km from the Bolivian border in Brazil’s hot and humid host city of Cuiabá, the singular challenges of the World Cup are painfully clear.
At the end of a corridor on the upper level of the city’s new stadium, a step ladder is cordoned off under a bundle of wires sprouting from a gaping hole in the ceiling. The authorities are still trying to figure out how a 32-year-old worker was electrocuted a few days earlier.
So far eight workers have lost their lives on World Cup-related projects across Brazil compared with two in South Africa in 2010.
Although Brazil’s labour laws are seen as generally tough, when it comes to accidents, they are regarded by lawyers as more accommodating than in other countries.
This provides an incentive for builders who are rushing to finish projects to transfer the risk to workers, says Maurício Tanabe, a partner at Tauil & Chequer Advogados, a law firm, who specialises in labour law.
Brazilian law is also radically different from English law when it comes to the assessment and payment of damages to an employee or relatives, says Fabiano Deffenti, a lawyer with Carvalho, Machado, Timm and Deffenti Advogados in São Paulo.
Crucially, the maximum payout for death has been set by the Superior Court of Justice at 500 times the minimum wage, or about R$362,000 – a tiny amount compared with the millions of dollars often awarded in US cases.
For the World Cup’s critics in Brazil, these disparities are proof that Fifa, world football’s governing body, must establish stronger guidelines for host countries, whether Brazil, Qatar or any other nation. Better construction standards should be set for the host’s stadiums, and the social conditions under which they are built should be considered. “It should be in their protocol,” says Mr Alcadipani.
If not, Fifa risks scaring away the sport’s sponsors and tarnishing the image of football itself, which long one of the great equalisers in the world’s poorest communities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Vila Cruzeiro as the favela’s teenagers crowd on to the pitch, whooping and cheering, each dreaming that one day they could be as good as Romário – a Brazilian soccer champion and federal congressman who was born in a slum a 20-minute drive away.
But Mr Candido Alves watches them solemnly. “The truth is that many of these kids will end up exactly like me.”
Infrastructure: Amid the disillusionment, a legacy of sorts
One of the first things visiting fans will see on their way out of Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão international airport will be the soaring cables of a new bridge over the city’s bay, writes Joe Leahy.
This is the Transcarioca, the city’s latest public transport project providing dedicated bus lanes linking the airport and the far-flung beachside suburb of Barra da Tijuca, a painful drive by car because of Rio’s chronic traffic.
“This BRT will dar samba,” said a triumphant President Dilma Rousseff during the inauguration of the project, using an expression meaning it would benefit Rio.
The 39km bus line, which the government says serves 320,000 people a day and cuts commute times by 60 per cent, is one of the biggest of the so-called World Cup legacy projects.
These are important not only to the long-suffering citizens of Brazil’s increasingly congested cities, in which public transport has fallen behind after more than a decade of economic growth. They are crucial also to the political survival of President Rousseff, who will fight for a second term in October, and her allies in state and municipal governments, who are battling rising public scepticism over the benefits of staging the tournament.
A study by the Pew Research Center showed that six in 10 Brazilians think hosting the World Cup is a bad thing because it will take money from schools, health and other services.
Belatedly, the government has woken up to these concerns and launched an aggressive advertising campaign seeking to show the R$8bn it says were spent on stadiums came from loans from the state-owned development bank, BNDES, not the regular budget. This money would be repaid, the government says.
Despite deep disappointment, the World Cup and the Olympics will leave a legacy of some new infrastructure. There are new airport terminals in São Paulo and Brasília and several others under way. Aside from Transcarioca, other “bus rapid transit lines” are being built in Rio and other cities.
Brazil is tendering or has tendered infrastructure projects worth about R$882bn between 2013 and 2017, said Alberto Zoffman, head of project finance at Itaú BBA, the Brazilian investment bank.
“So a lot of things are happening, less than the government had announced or predicted, but many things are happening,” said Mr Zoffman.
Additional reporting by Thalita Carrico in São Paulo