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Sex for drugs: the dark reality of the favelas

I usually get home late, between 11pm and midnight, because there is extra work to be done at Casa do Zezinho, or I have to meet people who want to be our partners, or else I have to speak at a conference. When I get home, I have to take care of the kids. There are always some kids staying at my place, which is in a middle-class neighbourhood in a nearby city, called Guarulhos, south of São Paulo.

They stay at my place as a last resort when they can’t go back to their communities. Right now for instance I’m taking care of a boy with special needs called Paulinho. He is 27 but behaves like a child. And that’s the whole problem. His parents died not long ago and he is easy prey for drug traffickers in the favela where his grandmother lives. They give him pot to smoke. He likes it. And then they start asking small favours of him. Twice he ended up being beaten up by rival gangs. I fear he will be arrested some day.

His grandma will never move somewhere else. Her brick house was once nice and far from the riverside, but the river grew wider, and now the house is about to get swallowed by it.

The entire favela is horrible, with dark and winding narrow alleys. Houses are ridiculously small, three metres by four, and often seven to ten people live inside them. When families grow bigger, they add an extra floor, often built by themselves.

There is no sunlight, no trees, no public spaces. But Paulinho’s grandma, who is 72, says she wants to die in there.

Every morning I get up at 5 am, give the kids a nice breakfast and then start answering emails. Our work at Casa do Zezinho is quite well known now, so I receive all kinds of messages – today for instance I received a nice gift from a cutlery factory. They will give us all the knives and scissors we need for next year. I also get people who want to engage in our projects.

Bus also, much more often than you’d think, I receive emails from middle-class mothers who are desperate because their kids are involved with drugs. They cry for help, and my answer is always the same: bring them here. At Casa do Zezinho, I engage the rich boys in activities so they get to know teenagers who have a much tougher time growing up than they have. They see what drugged parents do to kids. And eventually, with their parents consent, I take them to the bioqueiras, the spots where drugs are sold in the faveles.

It’s not a pretty sight – you can see boys as young as 11 carrying guns, selling drugs, acting like little businessmen (some of them are so smart they would be head-hunted by company CEOs had they been born rich). When the middle-class boys go home, they think twice before lighting a spliff.

Of course teenagers from the favelas end up on a much darker path when they get involved with drugs. This is a very common issue I come across in my day-by-day life. Just this afternoon I was talking to a group of four friends, two boys and two girls. The door to my office is always open to kids. They can come and talk to me anytime, and I will stop anything I am doing.

Now these kids wanted to tell me something: they had misbehaved during a weekend trip at a farm. They ran away from educators to smoke cigarretes. Nothing too big, of course, but I had to be tough on them. We had an agreement that they would tell me every time they broke the rules. And so they did. I was pissed off on the outside but I was happy inside.

The truth is, having these four kids feel that lighting a cigarrete is wrong is great progress. All of them have been involved with hard drugs. The mother of one of the girls is a cleaner, she works every day until 10pm, plus, she has another nine children. Another mother is an alcoholic. And the two brothers’s father and uncles are involved in drug trafficking. So you see the type of education they get at home. If you ask the girls how are they purchasing drugs, you’ll hear: ‘I let the dealers masturbate on my thighs’. As for the boys, they offer men oral sex in exchange for pin-money. And we are speaking about 14-year-old boys and girls. I am sorry for writing this, but it’s the reality I face every day.

Now my plan is to strengthen the group so much that they will support each other. I told them straight away: I don’t want any of them coming to my office to tell what others are doing. They should come together and admit their guilt as a group. And so they did. It was cute. One of the boys was very ashamed to tell me he’d thrown a rock at a frog. You see, that’s the kind of feeling a 14-year-old boy should have. I told them quite severely to think about what they did and to write me an explanation. But I must confess, I felt so proud of them.

As told to

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Tia Dag