Gizele Martins on the militarisation of the favelas

A large group of heavily armed and armoured police in Brazil during the world cup, march in formation.
Heavily armed and armoured police in Brazil during the world cup march in formation. Source: Flickr


I am Gizele Martins, I am thirty-one years old, and I have been working as an alternative communicator and journalist in my community for the last fifteen years. I research and investigate the “favelas” (shanty towns) and their militarisation.

These two themes are deeply related to my own life. I began working in community communication after witnessing the injustices which are perpetrated in the favela in which I was born, which is the “favela da Maré”.

The favela da Maré is located in the lower-income northern part of Rio de Janeiro, which is one of the richest cities in Brazil. It stretches between three of the main express roads in Rio: the “Red Line”, the “Yellow Line” and “Brazil Avenue”. These routes connect the international airport, which is Rio’s main airport, to down-town Rio and to the richer southern part of the city.

The favela da Maré is surrounded by these three express roads and the repression against its residents and the militarisation process that it has been suffering is also related to its strategic location near the international airport and Guanabara Bay. In fact, Maré grew up upon landfills built up over the years where the sea once was (“maré” means “tide”).

As I said, I began working in community communication when I was fifteen or sixteen years old because I saw many injustices happening on a daily basis in that favela. The police would come and kill young people, execute them, invade residents’ houses, rape women; the City Hall would come and remove people from its houses.

So I felt the need to tell those stories, to tell the people what was happening inside Maré, but to go beyond what was being published in the criminal section of the mainstream newspapers. Because in Brazilian traditional and commercial media, the favela only shows up in the criminal section.

It only appears when ‘violence’ is the news and its residents are shown as those whom the people should fear, those who should be killed, those who should disappear from the city. They are represented as the problem itself.

So I began working as an alternative communicator to denounce the state, the police, the City Hall, the government and to write a different narrative based on the memory of the people who live in the favelas: black people, natives, refugees, people from north-eastern Brazil who have left their land and migrated to Rio looking for jobs.

The community media that I am engaged in talks about our identity, our culture, our music; it explains how the people who work harder than others to build this country are pictured as lazy, as those who do not have anything to say, as those who should be feared. As those who have nothing to do and should be banned from some areas of the city, as those who are considered dangerous because they are poor. As those who are dangerous, violent, criminals, because they are black. So the message that we send through the favela is that we are being marginalised, we are violated, criminalised by the state, by the terrorist state which is Brazil.

I also participate in other community media groups in other favelas, as my work has led me to get to know them. There are more than a thousand favelas in Rio today. I support groups of mothers and relatives who have lost their children to police violence. I collaborate with other alternative media groups who keep a watch on what is going on in Maré and in other favelas. I also offer training and workshops about the favelas and about community communication, about racism, gender issues and memory, creating different narratives about the favelas.

The collective struggle that we are engaged in Rio intends to bring to surface the other side of the favelas. It shows people how the state threatens our culture and our lives. In 2014 and 2015, the armed forces occupied Maré. The military occupation lasted for seventeen months and this raises a big question.

During those seventeen months, the Brazilian Federal Government spent 1.7 million reais (around US$ 5,000) each day to keep the troops operational in Maré. If I consider my life time, the government invested 875 million reais (around US$ 270 million) during a period of seventeen months to finance the military occupation of the Maré but, in the last six years, the investment in public policies has totalled 300 million reais (around US$ 90 million). This is a huge difference.

We had one soldier for every fifty-five residents of the favela da Maré, whose population was estimated to be 132,000 people in the year 2000 (today this number seems to have gone beyond 200,000 residents). So, for a period of seventeen months, we had one soldier for every fifty-five residents. But we have never had a similar ratio of one doctor or one teacher for every fifty-five residents in the favela da Maré.

When we look at these figures, we start to compare the differences between public policies, those which are delivered to the population of the favelas, of the suburbs, which form the majority of the total population of Rio de Janeiro.

In forty-four favelas in Rio, there are units of the “Pacifying Police Unit” (the “UPPs”). This is another policy that fosters the militarisation of the favelas and advances control over the black bodies and the poor people who inhabit these urban spaces.

In forty-four favelas, we have militarised police playing the roles of teachers, playing music appropriated from the favelas, imposing curfews and even trying to influence us in our historical struggles, as in the community media...

...which is growing in Rio, especially in those militarised favelas, where the army and the police try to take over control. When they cannot do that, they shut down community radios, threaten communicators and expel communicators from their own houses.

So what we have now in Rio de Janeiro is a collective movement of favela residents formed by an array of groups. We are noticing that the state does not allow us to organize ourselves because everyday we keep counting our dead.

Yesterday, the police shot a young man who was going to work. But he was black, and he lived in the suburbs. This is an acceptable dead body. We are facing a genocide of black people in Brazil, as well as of the indigenous natives.

The natives have been suffering this genocide for the last 500 years; actually, for more than 500 years. When the first Portuguese colonizers arrived, they began to massacre the natives. And so, for the last 500 years, we have faced the genocide of black people in Brazil.

Each year 30,000 young people are murdered in Brazil. They are young black men, residents of the favelas and the suburbs of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or of any of the other provinces of Brazil.

We are fighting against the use of the classification of “resisting arrest” by police who are authorised to shoot and kill under this premise. We are fighting against the militarisation of life and we are fighting for an identity for black people, for indigenous people, for favela people. We are fighting for our memory and that is why we build our own museums, our own newspapers and why we give value to who we are inside those spaces in the favelas.

To finish, I would like to leave a message of solidarity with all the people who are oppressed by the state anywhere in the world. I would like to leave it in memory of all the people from the favelas and suburbs in all parts of Brazil, as we are the people who have been resisting for the last 500 years.

And I, Gizele, the same as any movement that I am part of, we are all continuing this struggle. We are not creating the struggle, we are continuing it, and we follow the examples of the many struggles that have been fought throughout the world by people who have been massacred but have managed to rebuild their lives, over centuries, for thousands of years. I hope we keep fighting on a global scale. That’s it.

Author information

Gizele Martins is a journalist and community communicator from the Maré favela in Brazil. She writes for the newspaper O Cidadão and the magazine Vírus and is a founder of the Escola de Notícias and Historiorama.


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About the authors

Gizele Martins is a journalist and community communicator from the Maré favela in Brazil. She writes for the newspaper O Cidadão and the magazine Vírus and is a founder of the Escola de Notícias and Historiorama.