Marielle was a student of the ‘Pre-Vestibular’ course of Maré in 1998, after the birth of her daughter Luyara. When Luyara was born, Marielle was only 19 years old. She had left school and decided to take up studying again in an attempt to enter into university. After a few attempts, Marielle was accepted into the Social Sciences program of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, with a grant for students from Maré.
Her university experience therefore, was not that of the other students. She was already 23 when she entered, she had a small child, she was working as she had done from the age of 11, but it was an experience that opened up a whole new world to her. She affiliated herself initially to the PT, the Worker’s Party of Brazil, later switching to the PSOL, the Socialism and Freedom Party, for which she was elected councilwoman in 2016.
Police repression and defending human rights
Her militancy, even before aligning herself to political parties, was always in the area of human rights. For the inhabitants of the favela, the fight to secure their human rights is fundamental, because it’s a fight for their own survival.
Aside from economic inequalities, inhabitants of the favelas face a daily fight for their lives, living in the most violent areas of the cities where the Brazilian State exercises its iron fist over its people. Favelas are seen by the Brazilian people as hiding places for criminals and the city’s marginalised, therefore the idea that police can open fire on their inhabitants is justified by this stigma.
In Brazil, the police force that come into the most direct contact with the population is the military police, and the inhabitants of the favelas are treated by the military police as enemies. This justifies the military operations taking place in favela territory, with the use of war tanks and heavy artillery. As these are spaces generally considered to be on the margins of the law, police operations there have been characterised by illegality and a lack of discretion. It’s common for civilians to die in the crossfire during police operations in the favela.
As these are areas in which there is often very little state presence, they have become operational headquarters for drug traffickers. These traffickers throughout time became a strong local presence that suppress the inhabitants of the favelas into submission through the use of violence. Since the 80s, the drug gangs have occupied a considerable space within the favelas of Rio, controlling the daily lives of those who call them home.
Police repression in the favelas began to increase around that time as part of the war on drugs that has affected almost the entire region. Therefore, for around 40 years the favelas have become war zones where two unforgiving forces battle each other at the expense of those who live there: the military police and the drug traffickers.
Rio de Janeiro’s military police is particularly violent: in 2017, in an agreement with the Brazilian Public Security Forum, 5144 persons died as a result of political actions and out of those, 1127 took place in the state of Rio de Janeiro (whose population of 16,72 million represents 8% of Brazil’s total population).
Indeed, many inhabitants of the favelas have lost their friends and family members on account of violence from traffickers, police forces or in confrontations between the two. The case of Marielle Franco is no different: as an adolescent she lost a friend who was assassinated in Maré during a clash between the police and narco traffickers. The pain and indignation she felt over the death of her friend were fundamental in connecting Marielle to the world of politics.
First years of political militancy in the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL)
In 2006 the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) launched Marcelo Freixo as a candidate for state deputy under the banner of promoting human rights. Marcelo, a history professor in schools and the pre-vestibular course of the Maré, was a local activist that initially worked with prisoners and their families helping those whose sons and daughters were assassinated by the Rio de Janeiro military police.
Marielle joined Freixo’s campaign in Maré and was afterwards asked to form a part of his cabinet and participate in the Human Rights Commission, which he presided over. Marielle’s work was essential for the Human Rights Commission.