Beyond the police: What could we have done when the justice system told us what was happening?

The state of emergency declared by a Brazilian court last week is now, by many accounts, a justification for the murders of hundreds of women and girls by men — mostly from rural areas…

Beyond the police: What could we have done when the justice system told us what was happening?

The state of emergency declared by a Brazilian court last week is now, by many accounts, a justification for the murders of hundreds of women and girls by men — mostly from rural areas — that are only now being recognized as possible gang-related sex crimes.

What did the U.S. know about the problem that they didn’t use when they prosecuted gangs? We’ve identified a few key areas where they might have been able to prevent deaths.

The gang, allegedly known as “13,” was reportedly believed to have started to criminalize relationships between men and girls as young as 10. Some of the crimes they committed like arranging sex with children in order to gain money could have been prevented had they been notified of the growing social stigma of such relationships as being crimes against children and girls, as the Human Rights Watch report mentions.

The gang allegedly sought to lure girls from the slums back to their rural hometowns and collect what was then a large amount of money from them, which they then distributed to other criminals as salary. These crimes could have been prevented if they were recognized as potentially associated with the social stigma of women, which could not be swept under the rug and labeled as the misfortune of girls who made a mistake.

The gang began to grow quickly from rural areas in 2014. Some men in the gang were black and, according to media reports, some of the victims were black girls as well. Similarly, most were originally girls of color — believed to be kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

While it is not clear whether the men responsible were specifically given strict instructions by their leaders, so-called “narcos” involved in the gang’s leadership were known to be involved in sex trafficking. If this gang had been notified that they may have been involved in sex trafficking — which, again, they were not — they could have been arrested immediately.

The lack of coordination among different Brazilian state officials allowed the group to grow to its current size. In Brazil, prosecutors are typically involved in the cases of homicides, kidnappings and gang activities.

But they have few resources to focus on gang activities. Their office is highly reliant on international partners like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. A major asset they do have is the National Criminal System, which stores digital evidence related to crimes such as murder. The unit would ideally be a quick way to gather evidence on potential crimes. They could also use it to identify groups like the 13 — for example, if they located alleged gang members and showed them where they were committing crimes.

The illegal sexualization of young girls was not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro before the 13 and not that unusual in rural areas, either. If they had been informed of the problem, they would have been able to make the necessary investment to see it to an end.

Erda Chateauneuf is an analyst at Human Rights Watch and author of “Sexual Violence and the Insurgent Gangs in Brazil: A Report by a Special Human Rights Commission.” The full text is available here.

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