It was probably not the intention of the cold-blooded murderers of Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes for their shots to be heard around the world. Perhaps they thought their actions would pass unremarked, like the vast majority of violent crimes in the city. But it wasn’t to be. Hours after the execution-style double homicide on March 14, incensed human rights activists and community members in Rio began an outcry that has grown exponentially in the days since.
Franco was elected to her position in 2016, becoming the only black woman in the 51-seat council. She was a vocal advocate for women, minority, and LGBTQ rights, and a staunch critic of police brutality and the militarization of law enforcement in her city. She was mourned by thousands in nightly vigils and protest marches, and is already being called a global human rights icon. Because she was an openly gay woman living in a conservative Latin American society, little has been said about her bereaved partner, which just adds to the injustice of the whole affair. Marielle Franco was 38 years old.
Naturally, there’s so far little reliable information on who may be responsible for the murders, and what the motive behind them may have been. This hasn’t stopped some activists in the media to proclaim that Franco was the target of a political assassination. “No one has a name or a photo,” says a particularly incendiary article from The Jacobin magazine, “but everyone knows, broadly, who killed Marielle Franco […] elements of the police are responsible; […] and, in light of the attackers’ brazenness and professionalism, they are likely protected by members of Rio’s political class.” This is certainly a plausible theory, given the history of Brazil, and will no doubt become the official version of events among many progressives and left-wingers. All the more so because few expect a serious investigation to ever take place. Already, as Ella Mahony points out in The Jacobin, protesters are not only asking “who killed Marielle Franco?” but also “who killed the killing of Marielle?”
Regardless of who was directly responsible for the killing, it clearly comes at an inconvenient time for Brazilian president Michel Temer and his allies. On February 16, before the end of Rio’s world-famous Carnival, Temer sign a decree that ordered Brazil’s armed forces to take over the security of the city, particularly the massive shantytowns known as favelas. The city, said Temer in a nationally televised speech, was out of control: “it’s time to bring back law and order.”
Implicit in accusations about a police killing of Marielle Franco is the assumption that Temer’s decree is not at all about protecting the people of Rio but has rather more cynical and nefarious purposes. Critics, for instance, point to statistics that show homicides and other crimes were down in 2018 compared to the previous year. Notably, Franco had been appointed to head a commission on the fiscal backing of the military operation only days prior to her murder.
With presidential elections looming in October, some have suggested Temer’s move to call in the military was an attempt to raise his dreadful popularity numbers, following a disastrous tenure as president that saw him investigated for corruption and derided as a thief by presidential hopefuls from both the right and the left. Temer has denied the accusations and declared he will not run for reelection.
Beyond the political troubles of the powerful, the immediate question for the citizens of Rio is: what will the consequences be of the military operation on what was already, by all accounts, endemic violence. Rio’s police force has an atrocious human rights record, being cited by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for brutality, disregard for civil rights, and corruption. For Franco and her allies, there is not doubt that the military will only make matters worse, and that the poorest and most defenseless will pay the brunt of the price.