Activists in Brazil Demand Justice for Marielle Franco

A fearless and tireless advocate for Brazil’s poor, Marielle Franco made a name for herself as a city council member in Rio De Janeiro. She was a particularly strident opponent of the heavy-handed tactics police use to monitor the city’s favelas, Brazil’s impoverished slums. Her identity as a bisexual Black woman informed her resistance to social injustice. Her assassination more than one year ago sent shock waves through the social justice and advocacy communities in Brazil and elsewhere. She has become a symbol of fearlessness in the face of government corruption and an undaunted champion of the dispossessed. Despite the arrest of two ex-police officers for the act, those who ordered her murder remain unidentified.

Franco’s assassination shocked the world. She was shot in the open along with her driver Anderson Gomes, who also died in the attack. According to observers, the killings were targeted and carried out by professionals. Many believe her assassination was directly related to her opposition to the federal intervention of the nation’s army in Rio, a move widely seen as encouraging the continued victimization and abuse of the poor by the police state.

Franco spoke out against this form of police killing. In 2008, she took part in a state legislature commission investigating the paramilitary groups that operate with impunity in the favelas, according to The Guardian.

Brazilian media reported the bullets retrieved from the crime scene belonged to a batch sold in 2006 to federal police in Brasília, Brazil’s capital. Government officials dispute the report, arguing the bullets were possibly stolen in 2017 from a post office in Paraíba. Progress in the investigation has proven slow and halting since the arrest in March 2019 of two suspects, Ronnie Lessa, a retired military police officer and Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, a former police officer.

The investigation revealed Lessa fired the fatal shots that killed Franco and Gomes while it appears Queiroz drove the car used to ambush the councilwoman and her driver. The shooting was premeditated and “it is incontestable that Marielle Franco was summarily executed for her political activity in defense of the causes she defended,” prosecutors said in a statement on the charges, according to The Guardian.

The suspects were arrested in their homes where material pertinent to the investigation was also retrieved. The material included electronic equipment as well as documents, laptops, cellphones, weapons, and ammunition. At a March news conference, investigator Giniton Lages described the scope of the investigation, which included tapping more than 318 phone lines, collecting more than 760 gigabytes of data, and obtaining more than 5,700 pages of information through discovery. Lages also mentioned a second phase of the investigation, but no details were forthcoming, according to The Guardian.

The question of who ordered Franco’s murder and why remains unanswered. Brazilians and international human rights organizations have decried the slow pace of the investigation.

This month, Amnesty International sent letters to Wilson Witzel, Governor of Rio De Janeiro and Dr. José Eduardo Gussem, the state’s public prosecutor. The letters called on these officials to solve the murders and provide updates to the public on the status of the investigation, including information regarding police inquiries and investigative actions.

The letter further stated: “We will not rest until the truth is known, until all those responsible for this crime, including its physical perpetrators and its instigators, have been brought to justice in a fair trial, and the state provides protection and psychosocial support for the Marielle and Anderson families.”

Franco was born in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro. She gave birth to a daughter at 19 and raised the child singlehandedly while pursuing undergraduate and graduate education. Her master’s thesis focused on the effort by police forces in Rio De Janeiro to retake the favelas from gangs. After brief stints as a political consultant and community organizer, she ran for and won a seat on Rio De Janeiro’s city council in 2016. As a Black bisexual woman, she positioned herself as a champion for the poor and dispossessed. She tirelessly fought against violence against women, for reproductive rights, and to extend the rights of favela residents. Her last political act was attending a round table discussion on how Black women could create change in the favelas on the day she and her driver were assassinated.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.