AGED just nine-years-old, Marli Gonzaga was forced to work for drug gangs in the slums of Brazil in a desperate bid to survive.
After a childhood plagued by tragedy, the youngster spent her days wrapping cocaine with old newspapers in exchange for stolen food and a rotten mattress.
Marli – who is now training to be a nurse – spent most of her younger years immersed in the dark world of drug trafficking after both her parents died.
Aged nine, Marli lived in a "biqueira" in São Paulo – a Brazilian slang to describe a drug hotspot.
Biqueiras are the usually grim derelict or abandoned buildings where drug dealers and addicts squat to conduct their trafficking business.
Speaking to The Sun, Marli described the appalling conditions of the place she was forced to call home – and the life she faced under the wrath of Sao Paulo's drug lords.
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She said: "The building didn't have many walls and most windows were broken. There was no energy, no water, or sewage and all of us slept spread around on the floor."
Marli said the lucky ones would find a corner by the wall – or sleep on a dirty mattress.
To eat and have a roof over her head, she was forced to follow 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.
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"During my free time I'd play with a tiny rice bag or fly kites made with unused newspaper sheets.
"By 'unused' I mean the papers I'd secretly stash for later when I was wrapping cocaine and marijuana."
After her morning market trips, nine-year-old Marli would shred marijuana blocks and roll them up so her sister and cousin could sell them to drug dealers.
The same would apply to cocaine – getting all wrapped up so it could be shipped off across São Paulo.
At the weekend, the young girl would be forced to tag along with her cousin to visit her thug boyfriend in prison.
Now selling barbecue skewers and training to become a nurse, the mum-of-two and grandmother said she will always be haunted by her upbringing in the outskirts of the Brazilian city.
She did everything to survive inside the Brazilian favelas – from enduring forced labour by her aunt to wrapping drugs and paying visits to dealers in prison.
After her mother died from pre-eclampsia, Marli and her four siblings were raised by their dad, 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 wouldn’t eat
"I had a very troublesome and lonely childhood," she told The Sun.
"Since I was two, I have lived without a mum, many times without a dad, and later in life with no family at all.
"My siblings would drive my father insane as they were constantly arrested for shoplifting or caught using drugs while he was at work.
"And when he was at home, he’d drown his sorrows away with three bottles of liquor a day until he passed out."
It was her father's death that turned her life "upside down".
Despite not being a present parent, he was "the only person to show me love", Marli said.
"My dad and I were extremely close. We were our own little family," she said.
"He would always ask me 'When I die, you will meet me afterwards right?'.
"His main concern wasn’t dying, but leaving me alone with siblings that couldn’t be further away from family."
Marli – who did not attend school – moved in with her uncles, having nothing but an old orange dress to call a wardrobe at age eight.
And she was allegedly met with endless hours of forced labour by her own aunt.
"My aunt made me her slave, in the real sense of the word," 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 at their house and I had one meal a day since all the food went to my aunt’s own children."
After escaping the hellish home, Marli found herself with nowhere to go.
Her half-brother Donizete had been shot dead in a turf war, and she had lost contact with all her relatives – apart from her sister Ana and cousin Daia.
Marli said: "They were my only option, otherwise where would I live?
"Alone in my childhood home where my late half-brother killed two people? Or with my uncles who would make me their slave?
"Ironically, the 'best' option was living amongst criminals and drug dealers."
I lived in a separate storage room at their house and I had one meal a day since all the food went to my aunt’s own children
Surprisingly, the Brazilian said that being part of the criminal scheme was not the worst part of her poverty-stricken childhood.
Her sister, Ana, was tragically shot dead after getting mixed up with drug gangs.
"Turns out that Ana had spent so much on drugs, she was owing an insane amount of money to our cousin Daia’s dealer," Marli said.
"I still remember hearing the five gunshots as if it was yesterday.
"It felt like at every stage of my life I'd lose a piece of my family as they would either be jailed or murdered.
"And even though I'm now happily married and moved on, those memories will forever haunt me."
Marli sadly shared the same tragic reality as millions of Brazilian children under forced labour conditions.
As of 2019, 1.7 million children aged 5 to 17 were involved with child labour – making up to a staggering 4.6 % of the youth population (38.3 million) in Brazil, the Brazilian statistics office IBGE found.
Anti-child labour institution Criança Livre de Trabalho Infantil pins the shocking figures on the centuries-old structural racism rooted in Brazilian society.
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"Black slavery in Brazil lasted more than 350 years, where children were exploited as domestic and rural manpower and stripped off a healthy childhood," the group said.
"The child labour scenario in Brazil is worsened by the lack of effective reparation measures and public policies."
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