SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL — In her grubby office in downtown São Paulo, Conceicao Paganele leafs through a pile of letters from all over the world.
She can't read French, German, or English but she doesn't have to. She knows what they say and it is this: "To São Paulo [State] Governor Claudio Lembo: Please stop harassing this woman who has made it her life to defend imprisoned youths. If the death threats and intimidation continue or if something happens to her, you will be responsible."
A petite woman in her 50s, Ms. Paganele is an unlikely poster girl for human rights. But since she was accused by the São Paulo state government of inciting riots and jailbreaks, organized crime, and causing property damage inside juvenile detention centers, or FEBEMs, as they are known in Portuguese, she has become just that.
Police are investigating her, and are considering bringing formal charges. Amnesty International has taken up her case.
Paganele's troubles have highlighted the perennial turmoil inside the FEBEMs and put a human face on juvenile crime and the modernization of the much-maligned institutions. To her critics, Paganele is a dangerous troublemaker, more concerned with her image than the well-being of the state's more than 6,000 detained adolescents. To her supporters, she is the scapegoat for officials trying to shift focus away from the mismanagement and violence that have plagued the FEBEMs for decades.
"Rather than addressing the chronic problems that fuel rebellions at detention units, [the FEBEM officials have] opted to file a complaint against one of the most prominent juvenile rights advocates in the country," Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an open letter to Mr. Lembo. "The complaint ... creates a serious risk that people doing necessary human rights work will be intimidated."
FEBEMs are intimidating places, much like adult jails. On the outside are guards' watch towers and walls topped with barbed wire. Inside, gray concrete structures host bunk beds, communal showers, and exercise yards. The problem, say human rights advocates, is that the similarities do not end there.
Government guidelines state that detainees should be given a safe environment with education, therapy, and recreation designed to help steer them away from a life of crime. Gangs formed in prisons have terrorized São Paulo twice in the past two months by shooting law- enforcement officers, burning buses, and bombing banks, supermarkets, and shopping malls. Authorities know that by winning youths over early enough, they can reduce the possibility of recidivism. The recidivism for youths locked in FEBEMs is 17 percent, a rate the authorities trumpet.
But conditions inside the state's 136 FEBEMs are often primitive and inmates say abuse is common. At least 19 adolescents have died in the FEBEM complex at Tatuape, São Paulo, since 1999, according to the Center for Justice and International Law, and many more allege systematic abuse and torture.
"Sometimes you just want to talk to someone but you can't because if you say the wrong thing [FEBEM authorities] think you are being clever, and you get hit," says one 17-year-old inmate who has been inside Tatuape for two months on charges of armed robbery and who, because of Brazilian legal restrictions, cannot be identified by name.
Paganele's role as president of The Association of Mothers and Friends of Children and Youths at Risk (Amar) is to provide support to such youths and their families, most of whom are from impoverished backgrounds with below-average education and scant knowledge of the law or their rights.
She received the Brazilian government's prestigious National Human Rights Award in 2001 and Amar took the same prize two years later. Mothers say her prestige and personality work wonders with authorities who won't listen to them.
"[Paganele] commands respect," says the mother of a teenager who is recovering from being hit in the eye with a rubber bullet during an April riot in the Tatuape FEBEM. "If it wasn't for Amar things would be worse than they are."
The ombudsman for São Paulo state's FEBEMs, however, says Paganele poses a threat to both FEBEM employees and inmates. During an April rebellion, Paganele spoke to youths on a cellphone smuggled into the facility and "incited them to violence (and) told them to kidnap officials" says Alexandre Peroni.
The confrontation dismays Mr. Peroni, who says Amar ignores the fact that authorities are undertaking a widespread modernization program. They have closed seven of Tatuape's 18 units and are shutting down others across the state and moving detainees to smaller, more manageable facilities. Five new jails have opened since May and another 25 are under construction, Peroni says. Such actions prove the state government is serious about changing, he says, and he encouraged Paganele to work with them.
"If he wants me to work with them then why has he asked the police to investigate me and send me to jail?" Paganele asks, before cataloging a series of anonymous death threats given to her and her family. "I used to work with them. Now all I get is intimidation."