At just nine years old, Marli Gonzaga was forced to work for drug gangs in the slums of Brazil in a desperate attempt to survive.
After a childhood marked by tragedy, the young woman spent her days wrapping cocaine in old newspapers in exchange for stolen food and a rotting mattress.
Marli, who is now training to be a nurse, spent most of her youth in the dark world of drug dealing after both her parents died.
At nine years old, Marli lived in a “biqueira” in São Paulo – Brazilian slang to describe a drug hotspot.
Biqueiras are the usually gloomy abandoned or abandoned buildings where drug dealers and drug addicts conduct their business.
Speaking to The Sun, Marli described the appalling conditions in the place she was forced to call home – and the life she experienced under the wrath of Sao Paulo’s drug lords.
She said: “The building didn’t have many walls and most of the windows were broken. There was no electricity, water or sewage and we all slept on the floor.”
Marli said the lucky ones would find a corner against the wall – or sleep on a dirty mattress.
In order to eat and keep a roof over her head, she had to adhere to a strict schedule enforced by the ruling drug lords.
“Every morning I had to go to the local market to steal food and if I didn’t help, I wouldn’t eat,” Marli said.
“In my free time, I played with a tiny rice bag or flew kites made from unused newspaper sheets.
“By ‘unused’ I mean the papers I secretly stored for later when I was packing cocaine and marijuana.”
After her morning trips to the market, nine-year-old Marli chopped up blocks of marijuana and rolled them up so her sister and cousin could sell them to drug dealers.
The same would apply to cocaine – all packaged so it could be shipped across São Paulo.
At the weekend, the young girl and her cousin had to visit her thug boyfriend in prison.
The mother of two and grandmother, who now sells barbecue skewers and is training to be a nurse, said she will always be haunted by her childhood on the outskirts of the Brazilian city.
She did everything she could to survive in the Brazilian favelas, from forcing her aunt to labor to packing drugs to visiting dealers in prison.
After her mother died of preeclampsia, Marli and her four siblings were raised by her father, who worked around the clock as a security guard.
Every morning I had to go to the local market to steal food and if I didn’t help, I didn’t eat
“I had a very difficult and lonely childhood,” she told The Sun.
“Since I was two years old I have lived without a mother, many times without a father and later in life without a family at all.
“My siblings drove my dad crazy because they were constantly getting arrested for shoplifting or getting caught doing drugs while he was at work.
“And when he was home, he drowned his sorrows with three bottles of liquor a day until he passed out.”
It was her father’s death that turned her life upside down.
Although he wasn’t a parent present, he was “the only person who showed me love,” Marli said.
“My father and I were very close. We were our own little family,” she said.
“He always asked me, ‘If I die, you’ll see me again afterwards, right?’.”
“His main concern was not dying, but leaving me alone with siblings who couldn’t be further from the family.”
Marli, who didn’t attend school, moved in with her uncles when she was eight years old and had nothing but an old orange dress to call her wardrobe.
And she was allegedly subjected to endless hours of hard labor by her own aunt.
“My aunt literally made me her slave,” Marli said.
“I had to feed them, do the dishes, clean the house, change the babies’ diapers and so on. I wasn’t even offered a change of clothes as that would be too much to ask.”
“I lived in a separate storage room in their house and ate one meal a day as all the food went to my aunt’s children.”
After escaping the hellish home, Marli knew she had nowhere to go.
Her half-brother Donizete had been shot in a turf war, and she had lost contact with all her relatives except her sister Ana and her cousin Daia.
Marli said, “You were my only option, where else would I live?”
“Alone in my parents’ house, where my deceased half-brother killed two people? Or with my uncles who would make me their slave?”
“Ironically, living among criminals and drug dealers was the ‘best’ option.”
I lived in a separate storage room in their house and ate one meal a day as all the food went to my aunt’s children
Surprisingly, the Brazilian said that being part of the criminal plan was not the worst part of her poverty-stricken childhood.
Her sister Ana was tragically shot dead after becoming involved with drug gangs.
“It turned out that Ana had spent so much on drugs that she owed our cousin Daia’s dealer a crazy amount of money,” Marli said.
“I still remember hearing the five shots like it was yesterday.
“It felt like at every stage of my life I was losing a part of my family because they would either be imprisoned or murdered.
“And even though I’m happily married now and have moved on, these memories will haunt me forever.”
Marli sadly experienced the same tragic reality as millions of Brazilian children in forced labor conditions.
In 2019, 1.7 million children aged 5 to 17 were affected by child labor – a whopping 4.6% of the youth population (38.3 million) in Brazil Brazilian Statistics Office IBGE found.
The anti-child labor institution Criança Livre de Trabalho Infantil attributes the shocking figures to the centuries-old structural racism rooted in Brazilian society.
“Black slavery in Brazil lasted more than 350 years, during which children were exploited as domestic and rural workers and deprived of a healthy childhood,” the group said.
“The child labor scenario in Brazil is made worse by the lack of effective redress and public policies.”