Citizenship, violence, and youth in Brazil: reducing the legal age of criminal responsibility

  • Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
  • Lucia Scalco
19 October, 2015

In Brazil, there has been a perennial debate about reducing the legal age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 years. Congress has recently approved a legal amendment that aims to put this into practice.

According to a recent survey carried out by Datafolha, 87 per cent of the population supports the measure and believe it is the only way to address urban violence. There is a general understanding that young people commit crimes because they believe that they will go unpunished.

In the social sciences, at least since Michel Foucault, there have been many academic arguments that support the opposite idea: that imprisonment does not solve the problem of urban violence.

Because Brazilian prisons do not guarantee any minimal standards of human rights, they are in fact places where people simply learn how to defend themselves from rape and execution. In order to survive, young people are obliged to get involved in transnational drug trafficking organizations in exchange for protection. Prisons do not reeducate people; they are in effect machines that produce violence. On top of that, the vast majority of prisoners in Brazil are black men from the peripheries, which suggests that imprisonment is a mechanism for segregating the less privileged groups of society.

In March 2015, we interviewed a 15-year-old boy who is already leader of a gang that carries out robberies in the city of Porto Alegre. We asked him if he feared being caught by the police and he said he feared nothing, not even death.

Many years ago, when we first met Kiko, he was a frightened skinny boy. Over the years, he has become smarter and stronger. When he turned 14, he wanted branded tennis shoes but his parents could not afford them. He felt frustrated: “I studied so hard, I was the best in the school, I was so smart, and I was not being compensated. I knew I was becoming a loser like everybody who surrounded me. I turned the tables”.

Kiko left home and never came back. Now, he is proud of his collection of shoes, perfumes and branded clothing. Paradoxically, by breaking the law and committing small crimes, he says that now he is empowered and respected. He says he is now an urban global citizen. He does not care if he might be arrested – whether at 16 or 18 – because he believes he will soon be killed by the police or in a gang battle. He would rather have a shorter life, but one he sees as empowered. “For the first time people know my name,” he says.

Current studies in social sciences argue that we think about citizenship as going far beyond the nation-state and the narrow view on rights to national citizenship (Gordon and Stack, 2007). In this vein, by studying exclusion in Brazilian peripheries, Holston (2008) has stressed the need to take seriously insurgent forms of citizenship, which emerge from a process of violence and exclusion.

This perspective sheds lights on people like Kiko, who interpret the state as an enemy. He knew that the law and the police would not protect people like him. From an emic perspective, his claim for membership in society (Ferguson, 1999) happened by means of crime and commodification. His notion of citizenship was built up against the state and against civil rights, and was strongly linked to a moral belonging to a local society where he could be respected.

He grew up in a place that is the epitome of multidimensional poverty. It lacks everything, but above all it lacks social dignity in a context dominated by drug trafficking, clientelism, and police corruption.

He was nine years old when he saw his neighbour being hit by a car and dying in agony on the road without medical care. His other neighbour, a 3-year-old girl, breathes through tubes because she failed to receive proper medical care when she was born. The tubes sometimes do not work because they require electricity, which is lacking in the area. The girl’s father was supposed to receive government support to buy special milk, but frequently, without explanation, he does not receive it and has to start a humiliating process of begging for money.

Kiko also saw his father going to a hospital emergency room at 7 am for a medical test that had been scheduled a year before. He fainted after waiting for 24 hours in a long line without care, food, or even an explanation. He also watched his neighbour’s house on fire; the same neighbour who now has cancer and is also treated as a second-class human being in public hospitals. He grew up surrounded by rubbish and flooding and in unhygienic conditions. Kiko also does not fear being arrested because jail is a familiar place in his community.

Prejudice and humiliation are part of the everyday life of the community. Children are socialised in a hopeless social context. Their aspirations are interrupted by the cycle of poverty. Most girls become mothers as teenagers, while boys get involved in drug trafficking. Crime is thus a particular – if drastic – way of experiencing citizenship and briefly breaking the cycle of social rejection and failure.

As researchers, it is not our role to judge Kiko’s choice. As criminality is a behaviour learned through socialisation, our attempt is to comprehend the context in which violence emerges. As Marshal Sahlins reminds us, to relativise “is first and last an interpretive anthropological – that is to say, methodological – procedure. It is not the moral argument (…) Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy” (2002: 46).

Violence produces violence. In this specific case, structural violence encourages new forms of urban violence. This cycle tends to worsen after imprisonment in jail, where more violence will be received and internalised. As there is no longer any physical space in Brazilian jails, the tendency is simply to return to society a large number of more professional, fearless criminals.

Researching youth and urban gangs for many years, we learnt that resorting to criminal violence and desiring branded luxury goods might just be a moment in life. Throughout the years, we have observed that the vast majority of our informants gave up criminality when they became fathers. They started to work and joined the evangelical church. It did not mean that the quality of their lives improved, only that violence was not the end of the road: it might be a moment of transition; a liminal phase where the violence received is performed, denied, and inverted through male virility.

Given this reality, we suggest that the argument that a sense of impunity leads to criminality is meaningless. Young criminals act precisely to show that they are macho, brave, and fearless. They act to claim membership in local, national, and global society. We would argue against inefficient short-term polices that target the black and the poor. We believe there is no miraculous formula to address urban violence. Violence is a holistic process; therefore, the only way to address urban violence is by eradicating the everyday structural violence and social suffering produced by the state.


Gordon, A. and T. Stack (2007) ‘Citizenship beyond the state: Thinking with early modern citizenship in the contemporary world’, Citizenship Studies 11 (2): 117-33.

Holston, J. (2008) Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of democracy and modernity in Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall (2002) Waiting for Foucault, Still. Chicago: Prickly Pear Press.

Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is Departmental Lecturer in the Anthropology of Development at ODID.

Lucia Scalco received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

This post is part of our Sociology of Citizenship series, hosted in partnership with Politics in Spires

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About the author(s)
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado
Lucia Scalco