Pubdate: Fri, 21 May 1999
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 1999 Associated Press
Author: Stan Lehman, Associated Press Writer


SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP)   A man armed with a revolver barges into a high
school classroom, walks over to 18-year-old Elcio de Souza and shoots him
dead in a Sao Paulo suburb. The apparent motive: an unpaid gambling debt.

In another city suburb, 14-year-old Maria das Gracas Martins was about to
enter school when a single bullet pierced her heart, killing her instantly.
The killer reportedly wanted to get back at girls who had picked a fight
with his younger sister.

At least 10 students have been murdered this year inside or near schools in
Sao Paulo. Almost taken for granted here in Latin America's biggest city,
the violence is drawing new attention after 12 students and a teacher were
shot in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

"Violence in schools is nothing new, but it has worsened over the past few
years," educator Antonio Carlos Gomes da Costa told the Folha de Sao Paulo
newspaper. "It hasn't reached epidemic proportions, but it seems so because
of greater press coverage following the tragedy in the United States."

School killings reflect a larger trend of rising violence in Brazil, which
experts blame on easily available weapons, growing use of drugs and limited
prospects for low-income youths.

Brazil's economic crisis has sent unemployment soaring. Union statistics
show that a record 19.9 percent of greater Sao Paulo residents are out of
work more than 3 million people. The government pegs unemployment at around
8 percent.

"With nowhere to go, nothing to do and a bleak future, many youths turn to
drugs, violence and crime in and out of schools," says educator Roberto Leme.

Close to 6,000 people were murdered in Sao Paulo last year, and police say
drugs are behind nearly 60 percent of the killings.

The most recent campaign to reduce violence is aimed at curtailing gun
sales. The government is also studying a proposal to ban the sale of weapons

The latest official figures show that some 6 million Brazilians own guns,
but unofficial estimates put the number at close to 10 million.

Grass-roots citizen groups such as Rio's "Put Down that Weapon" and Sao
Paulo's "I'm For Peace" are urging people to turn in their guns. The effort
has not been particularly effective yet on one of its most successful days
this month, the campaign collected only 130 weapons.

Still, the campaign recently gained an important ally: soccer star Romario,
a Brazilian hero. After scoring a goal in a recent televised match, Romario
raised his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with the message: "Stop the violence
in schools."

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