In a Marie Claire interview, president of H360 discusses war on drugs and mass incarceration

In a Marie Claire interview, president of H360 discusses war on drugs and mass incarceration

The following interview was originally published in Portuguese in Marie Claire magazine in January 2024.

When lawyer Patrícia Villela Marino recorded a video in support of President Lula in October 2022, she didn’t expect the reaction that was to come. Married for more than 20 years to Ricardo Villela Marino, chairman of Itaú’s Board of Directors for Latin America and one of the bank’s heirs, she says that “fascist cells” have mobilized to close the accounts of important account holders.

“I didn’t imagine this would happen because I’m not a public person. And it generated animosity from people very close to me, who I thought were my friends,” she says from her office at Humanitas360, a non-governmental organization she created in 2015. Even so, she doesn’t regret taking a stand in the last presidential election. “If people from the elite of this country, extremely privileged like me, don’t take risks for other people, who will?”, she asks.

At the time of the interview, Marino was wearing colorful high-top sneakers made of hemp fabric, a cannabis fiber – the same as when she was on TV Cultura’s Roda Viva program in September last year. “I wear them so much that they’re falling apart, I need to buy another one,” she says. Marino is a fish out of water among Brazil’s elite: in addition to the turn in her political stance in the last presidential election – she took to the streets in 2013 to call for the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff – she is one of the organizers for the approval of PL 399/15, for the legalization of medical marijuana. She is also a campaigner for reform of the prison system, which she considers to be the country’s “deepest wound”.

In the high society circles she frequents, she says there is discomfort when dealing with these issues: “There’s a ‘here comes Patricia with her agendas’. Almost everyone has snorted cocaine at a cool party, and even when I talk about legalizing only cannabis, people are so hypocritical. Who is the bigger dealer in this story: the one who did cocaine for pleasure at a cool party or the one who dealt a joint? In my opinion, the cocaine user. It’s only in the interests of drug traffickers to maintain this criminalization”.

Her desire for social justice, says Marino, was germinated during the more than 20 birthdays she celebrated at the São Tadeu orphanage in São Paulo, at the behest of her mother. “Realizing how different my white family and I were from the orphans, 300 black children, was a constant pedagogical embarrassment,” she says. The lawyer also believes that late motherhood – at the age of 42 – contributed to the path of social engagement she has taken. “I’ve had 20 fertilization treatments. If I hadn’t gone through that, today I wouldn’t know what scarcity is – the only scarcity in my life. Of being able to have everything, but not being able to have the child I wanted so much.”

Below are the main excerpts from the interview with Marino.

MARIE CLAIRE When did you first come into contact with the issues of drugs and the prison system?
PATRICIA VILLELA MARINO At law school, doing an internship. Criminal law for law students is always exciting, but we have the perspective of American criminal law because of the movies and series we watch. Bringing this to Brazilian law happened in law school.

I was studying for the magistrates’ exam after college when I met my husband. We got married a year later and moved to Boston, in the United States. I had to make a huge choice, which I don’t regret, but back then I thought I had thrown my career away.

Ricardo went on to do an MBA and I was later accepted at Harvard’s Kennedy School to do a course on the third sector. That was in 1998, the third sector was just beginning in Brazil, with the wisdom of Ruth Cardoso. But my law degree was almost useless. When I returned to Brazil in the early 2000s, taking the magistrates’ exam was no longer in my sights. I wanted to work for social justice, but not necessarily in a magistrate’s robe. I was part of many experiences and programs until I had the idea of creating Humanitas and becoming an activist in the field of law for social justice and guaranteeing human rights.

One experience that marked my life was celebrating birthdays at the São Judas Tadeu orphanage, at my mother’s behest. That’s where my desire for social justice comes from. Going to law school had the connotation of giving theoretical shape to this, and then the experiments in territory were important in understanding that the hermetically sealed place of the prison system was where I wanted to work.

MC And your position on the legalization of drugs goes back to that time?
PVM No. I come from an extremely conservative background, I was brought up with a lot of prejudice. A pothead was considered a criminal and vice versa. That’s still the perspective of a large part of Brazilian society. That’s why I can understand this place. We have to debate prejudice and unravel it. Skaters and surfers were potheads, everyone who was no good was a pothead. I continued to think this way until my first years at university, when I got to know the criminal justice system.

Ten years later, I started going into the prison system to shoot Fernando Grostein’s movie Na Quebrada. I’m one of the sponsors of the movie and a great friend of Fernando’s. We went to the Adriano Marrey Penitentiary Complex in Guarulhos to cast men who had been deprived of their liberty under a closed regime. I had already taken the film Neruda, made in Chile and sponsored by Itaú, to some prisons. In this place, where people have no experience of culture, beauty or aesthetics, there was nothing better than bringing films. I saw the reactions of the men and women. Neruda, for example, when they found out they were the first to see it, before the commercial circuit, they all stood up and started clapping. These people need to be recognized. And that’s how rapprochement happens. Because if we don’t do this, the factions will. The State lets others do it instead. At that time, Humanitas was in the process of being built in the United States, with all the legal support to be a non-governmental organization with the possibility of making a tax deduction there. And I was thinking about what it would be like here, studying the laws.

Before Humanitas, I didn’t want to have any organization. I wanted to carry on with my work, but without becoming entrenched. I saw the third sector as a competition between organizations for a share of donors. There was a lack of solidarity and partnership, it was another way of being ravenous, savage capitalists. And that makes delivery precarious. Without a CNPJ, I was able to have good traffic. But as time went by, I was forcibly advised to become institutionalized for tax reasons. The fact that I created Civi-co [a coworking space for various NGOs], years later, was this effort: to be with more people, empowering, investing in other organizations and being mixed in with everyone. Humanitas needs other organizations, it works with public authorities and the private sector to show responsibility for the country we want. We will only get there by treating our deepest wounds, and the prison system is our deepest wound.

MC Why do you consider the prison system to be our deepest wound?
PVM It’s a fact that factions appear in the prison system. Why can’t the State contain this? What happens is the isolation of people of a certain zip code, color, and this isolation is done so cruelly that other rights are not taken care of. The right to come and go is under the protection of the State, but that’s precisely why the rights to health, education and sanitation need to be preserved. And they aren’t. So what emerges is a very big revolt in there. Where do I find shelter in this revolt, which is the basic need of any human being? The factions are places of welcome, listening and power.

If today they are a danger to national sovereignty, something is very wrong. Isn’t the State watching? We are the constituent power of this State. Civil society needs to be there together with the government, and it’s not. There is a sordid, corrupt power struggle and civil society, which sustains this system, is completely oblivious to what goes on in there. There’s no need to make a theme park out of prisons, but there needs to be an organized civil society, intellectually equipped and prepared, together with the public authorities within this system, playing the role of control, including financial support.

MC Do you regularly visit prisons?
PVM When we could operate in the state of São Paulo, until 2019, we went every week. We went to Tremembé, where we built two social cooperatives. An agricultural one, with soil treatment, organic seeds, water treatment. We harvested two tons of hibiscus that deteriorated because João Doria’s government forbade us to continue working. And another cooperative for the production of women’s and home accessories, with women. One of the cooperative members at the time, who was serving 11 years in prison for drug trafficking, left in May this year and works with me.

The prisoners keep everything that is collected from the cooperative’s sales. We also work with former prisoners. They make various kinds of accessories, embroidery, sewing, crochet and macramé. Today we have seven women in Tereza, our social enterprise in São Paulo, and in Maranhão we have two women in the open regime and 39 who are still in the prison system, in the Pedrinhas Complex.

Serving a sentence can’t be the end of life, it’s a transitory circumstance. We don’t have a life sentence in Brazil, but there is the perpetuity of the sentence in the person’s life, since they are not prepared to leave. The conditions for leaving are those of a faction, for survival. The job market won’t absorb this labor and the person won’t have their political rights returned. Serving time for drug trafficking, which is the situation of most prisoners, they leave with a fine to be paid to the state. How are they going to pay this to the state after years of deprivation of liberty? If they can’t pay it, the next day the faction is at their door, with health insurance, groceries and their children’s schools costs covered.

MC What were your first social engagements?
PVM I started in 2005. The first ones were in Jardim Ângela [a district in the south of São Paulo], where my mother-in-law has two organizations. I got to know them and took other organizations there.

MC When did the issue of drugs and the prison system become your main agenda?
PVM It wasn’t clear that these would be my agendas. Before 2010, we set up the Latin American Drug Policy Platform. We tried to understand with the other countries – both the elites, because they were my friends, and the social movements – what problems brought us together. What is the neuralgic point that brings us together, even if it destroys us? Drug trafficking. I helped coordinate one of the platform’s meetings at the University of Los Andes, in Colombia, and then at the University of Monterrey, in Mexico, with many authorities.

Trafficking leads to over-incarceration and the weakening of the sovereignty of the State, which becomes too punitive and prohibitionist, and less intelligent and tactical. It imprisons more and worse. In Brazil, indiscriminately, because it’s the police who decide whether you’re going to be arrested for drug trafficking or consumption. With this we delve deeper into alternative models, such as social cooperativism within the penitentiary system. The pedagogical embarrassment that Humanitas tends to create raises awareness.

MC What would be a pedagogical embarrassment?
PVM You problematize, you assume the complexity of the issues and this has to be treated as a pedagogical tool. Taking a step back and seeing where we went wrong. The anti-racist movement is a pedagogical constraint, understanding that we are racist. And this creates a process of literacy. Understanding that we are racist, patriarchal and sexist, this is clear within the prison system. A large part of society still lives under a certain Darwinism, as if certain types were born to be criminals. You have to see yourself as a promoter of injustice, as privileged without cause, in order to promote justice. I believe in this pedagogical embarrassment.

MC Have you always felt this embarrassment?
PVM It was a process of understanding this privilege, where it comes from. Understanding, for example, that my settler grandparents came here with help. The Butantã Institute was created because the settlers were bitten by snakes, not because the slaves were bitten. My grandparents arrived illiterate, with another culture, another language, but they were white. That’s why they arrived with the right to property. The American dream existed for some and not for others. With hard work, they could own property. Those who were already here couldn’t. Understanding that I was born with hereditary privileges was a discovery.

MC When did you realize this?
PVM Late in life, in my 30s, I wish it had been sooner. It was after I got married, when my privilege only increased. It was a process of stripping down. I’ve always asked myself: why do we exist? I’m not religious, but I consider myself spiritual. When I went to the orphanage, my family and I were all white, with a huge cake to offer the orphans, 300 black children. I’ve always lived with this embarrassment. This question of why then turns into what for. The why brings dissatisfaction and guilt.

MC Do you feel guilty?
PVM No. I feel purpose and responsibility. Within the “what for” we create the place to serve, to open up and look for ways to minimize. Going to the orphanage every year was extremely embarrassing. Everyone was so different from me. Little by little, the embarrassment led me to remove the barrier between us: the cake. This continuous and repeated embarrassment made me overcome it. Then I decided that we would take over the kitchen, make other food and serve them for real, and mingle with everyone. The 27 years brought me this experience of constant pedagogical embarrassment. Later, I was godmother to several boys, but the racial and class divide was already clear.

That was the seed of my thirst to work for social justice. First I wanted to be a missionary, then a scout for the Rondon Project and go to the Amazon. But I had a conservative upbringing, my parents would never let me do these things. This upbringing made me understand that conservatism exists, it just can’t be the path to reactionaryism.

MC Do you feel like a fish out of water in your social class?
PVM Less and less, but there’s that: “Here comes Patrícia with her issues”, for various reasons. I became a mother at 42, much later than the women I knew, and this gave me the opportunity – instead of falling into depression – to have other experiences. There is a social expectation that, after marriage, the family should grow. In my case it took 12 years. What if the couple decided they didn’t want to? Or are going through difficulties? Who has anything to do with it?

I couldn’t have children. I had 20 fertilization treatments. It takes a lot of courage to go through this and women don’t sympathize with infertility, the menopause, these issues that symbolize defeat in society. But they can be victorious when it comes to building an identity, bonds and a future. If I hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t know today what scarcity is – the only scarcity in my life. Of being able to have everything, but not being able to have the child I wanted so much. At this point we have to be careful because a legitimate desire can become an obsession. I’ve sometimes been on the verge of depression and mental illness because of the number of times I’ve had an abortion. Having something that fulfilled me intellectually was very important. That’s why the notion of a multiplicity of talents is very important, to anchor you when your emotional capacity is weak. Having a cause that is bigger than yourself.

MC How many abortions have you had?
PVM I made 19 attempts to get pregnant through fertilization, and on the twentieth he was born. Which doesn’t make me a superwoman, but one who better understands this great desire and the feeling of incompetence that some women have.

MC Returning to the question of drugs, do you support the legalization of all drugs?
PVM Personally, I advocate the legalization and regulation of everything we call drugs. They could also be called medicines. What is sold in drugstores? Drugs. These are chemical substances, some with psychoactive effects, for health treatment. Drug is used as a synonym for bad thing, “what a drug”. But they are chemical elements which, if used correctly, become therapeutic for acute or chronic situations.

MC And what is your opinion on the case before the Supreme Court, which is judging the decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use?
PVM The resumption of the trial is very beneficial and signals to society that the STF understands the importance of this 2015 agenda, which cannot wait any longer. Justice cannot delay in attending to this case in judgment, but also in responding to the state of abuse of legalism, which, by not defining an objective standard of amount to characterize consumption and trafficking, leaves this decision to the police officer who does not have this competence. Result: selectivity is based on prejudices that generated much of the over-incarceration. This judgment changes paradigms and, depending on the decision, will be historic and reparatory.

MC How is the conversation about drugs in your home?
PVM My 11-year-old son has seen a series about methamphetamine and cannabis. I want him not to have the prejudice I had, but to have the concept. And for that he needs to have these conversations at home. We need to be less hypocritical, less demagogic. The conversation with my son is to say that, to the extent that we consume something at the wrong time, in pre-adolescence, you are giving up the most important thing, your ability to decide. Under the influence of a psychoactive, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, you have lost your free will. In my house we have very open conversations.

MC And in the circles of the elite, how are you received?
PVM It’s such a taboo. Almost everyone has snorted at a ‘cool party’, and even when I talk about legalizing cannabis, those who consume cocaine have such hypocrisy. I can snort cocaine at my super party, but who was arrested with a joint… Who is the biggest dealer in this story? The one who did cocaine at a cool party or the one who smuggled a joint? In my opinion, the one who consumed cocaine for his own pleasure at the cool party. It’s only in the interests of the drug trade to maintain this criminalization.

It’s a patriarchal and colonialist culture. Once colonized, always colonizer. If you don’t smell good, if you don’t have a foreign name, if you don’t have the same color, the same tastes, we perpetuate colonization. The best way to colonize is to imprison. Didn’t we used to put them in slave quarters? Now we put them in prisons.

MC What was it like the first time you entered a prison?
PVM My first time in a prison was when I was invited to see the knitting that the men were doing in the Adriana Marrey prison complex in Guarulhos. When I saw it, I thought it was incredible. Men imprisoned for murder, heinous crimes, making wonderful knitwear, which later went to São Paulo Fashion Week. I remember the smell very much. The smell stuck with Daniel, my son, when he went with me at the age of five. I asked him what bothered him the most and he replied: the smell. I told him it was the smell of people. But where we come from, everything is perfumed. And we create these paradigms that anyone who isn’t perfumed is no good. The sound of the locks also marked me.

MC And why did you want to take your son?
PVM The process of raising him without the stereotypes I was brought up with. As I became a mother later, it’s a more mature experience. I’m willing to take the risks of raising him. If it goes wrong, I’ll take it.

MC You took part in the demonstrations for the impeachment of former president Dilma and in this election you voted and campaigned for Lula. Do you regret having defended the impeachment?
PVM I was part of a manipulated mass in 2013, during the impeachment. Just as a mass was manipulated in the following election. I was very careful not to experience this twice. I’m close to former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, I have a great appreciation for social democracy and I was campaigning for Marina Silva in that election. When she supported Aécio Neves, I became an Aécio supporter. I went on marches in support of him.

When Dilma was elected, I was frustrated and looked for a word of hope in the Bible. I spent the first few years of Dilma’s government supporting her, but as the media began to show her mismanagement at the time, I was part of this mass that understood what the media was showing. I rebelled against the content that reached me. Later, I saw that it was a maneuver for the emergence of a super right-wing, reactionary movement that has always existed in Brazil, but in a sheltered and silent place. I admit that I was maneuvered, as many have been and continue to be. I sought out other channels of information, the contradictory, and went so far as to record a video in October 2022 in support of Lula, which cost me dearly.

It was an election in which I voted for value and principle. For freedom, democracy and the rule of law. A candidate who submitted to being arrested when the courts decided so. It was a huge educational embarrassment for me. I defend the rule of law so much, and that justice be done, and here is a president who could have fled, but gave himself up and remained in prison until the nullities of this process began to be proven. It was a slap in the face for both sides. We need these almost epiphanic moments, to reflect and look at history without ideology or attachment. That’s why I voted for Lula. The then incumbent president got on a plane and flew to Florida. Nice, right? When Lula handed himself in to the police, there was no prospect that history would take the course it did. What a risk he took.

MC You said you paid a high price for supporting Lula. What price did you pay?
PVM My husband represents a large organization, and insiders, fascist cells, became superficialized and created a very large movement to close Itaú bank accounts. People from inside the bank were calling account holders, big clients. I exercised my freedom of expression and in my video I said that my family supported me, not my extended family. Who is speaking is a 53-year-old woman who defends her ideas and cannot be silenced by a situation.

MC Did you think it would generate such a reaction?
PVM No, because I’m not a public person. And it generated animosities from people very close to me that I didn’t expect, who I thought were my friends. But they were relationships of convenience.

MC Do you regret it?
PVM Not at all. Life is about taking risks. If people from the elite of this country, extremely privileged people like me, don’t take risks for other people, who will?

MC Do you have a relationship with Lula?
PVM Not with him exactly. I have relationships with people in the government, I sit on two different boards. I haven’t managed to talk to the president yet, unfortunately. Both times were canceled. I’d like to talk to him about history, about what he’s experienced. I lived in São Caetano when he held big marches in the ABC region of São Paulo. My father was a politician [former state deputy Floriano Leandrini, president of the former Banespa between 1987 and 1991 and one of the founders of the then Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB)], this was his electoral college.

I was studying in São Paulo and sometimes I couldn’t get home because the metalworkers had closed the streets. I was scared to death of him, of that man who shouted so much. I wanted to tell these little anecdotes and I’d like to talk about aspects of his life, how much he was stoned and how much of that may or may not have been forgiven. How much of it is still hurt, how much of it turns a politician into a statesman.

MC What is your assessment of Operation Car Wash?
PVM It was a very big manipulation, of which I was a part. I believed in it for a long time. I was very disappointed when I spoke to a prosecutor who told me that he was absent from the negotiations because he was working in politics. It sent a shiver down my spine when he told me that. I thought: this was a political maneuver and not a movement to transform Brazil. It was already the [Michel] Temer government. From then on, my process of revision and pedagogy with myself began. Lava Jato’s procedural flaws prevent any judgment on the merits. We will never know if there was theft or not. The means do not justify the ends.

MC Do you consider yourself a left-wing woman today?
PVM No, I’m a woman of causes. I don’t like the label because it closes dialogues, weakens democracy and the rule of law. To defend the legalization of the medicinal use of cannabis, Bill 399/2015, I need and want to talk to agribusiness. It’s a sustainable, clean, job-creating and creative economic banner. I want and need to talk to the evangelical caucus. If we believe that God created all things, why is it that this little plant, with so much therapeutic power, quality of life, connection with the environment, transcendental, which brings possibilities for new nerve connections in the brain, for expanding the mind – has been left aside? For Satan? How is that coherent?

MC Do you have interlocutors on the right?
PVM Yes, but I’m not allowed to say who they are.

MC What reform of the prison system do you advocate?
PVM I sit on the National Council for Criminal and Penal Policies, a federal government body that studies existing public policy and offers alternatives and reforms. We are looking at all religious matrices, for example, so that they have accessibility. We’ve just offered a resolution for the use of body cameras. Another group is discussing gender discrimination within the system.

At Humanitas, we are working to create an alternative to the Penal Execution Law, bringing social cooperativism into the criminal procedure code. Today, a person deprived of their liberty on sentence or on remand receives three-quarters of the minimum wage, with no benefits and no prospect of future work. It’s modern-day slavery. I spoke out against this, with legal backing, and we’re building a pilot for this to be presented as a bill. The prison system can be a time for reflection, study and professional preparation.

MC Do you have any ambitions to enter politics?
PVM I love politics, I come from a political house, I’ve been there a lot and I believe in it. But I have no ambition to enter and it’s already an agreement with my husband, who wouldn’t like it. I don’t think he has good experience. And that makes life difficult for the family. I’ve lived through it. My parents split up twice. Politics absorbs you a lot.

MC Do you want to make the Brazilian elite less reactionary?
PVM It would be messianic of me to want to convince the Brazilian elite of anything. I want women to have the dignity to defend their causes. Today I see myself as a promoter, a driving force, so that other women can speak up for themselves.