On 13 March, 2018, 38 year old Rio de Janeiro Councillor, feminist, human rights and LGBT activist Marielle Franco took to Twitter to speak out against the continued and systemic police violence in Rio de Janeiro; ‘Another homicide of a young man that could be credited to the police. Matheus Melo was leaving church when he was killed. How many others will have to die for this war to end.’ Melo was shot by police in the Jacarezinho favela shortly after leaving a church in early March.
On 14 March, 2018, Marielle Franco wrapped up a speech at Rio’s House of Black Women entitled ‘Young Black Women Moving Power Structures’, finishing with the words ‘Let’s do this’ to resounding applause and cheering from the crowd.
At 9:04 pm Franco stepped into her chauffeur driven Chevrolet Agile and drove away from the venue towards the Rio de Janeiro’s Rua Joaquim.
Minutes later she was dead, assassinated in her own car.
A second car pulled up beside Franco’s and fired 9 bullets into the vehicle. 3 hit Franco in the head and 1 in the neck. Franco’s press secretary survived but driver Anderson Pedro Gomes was also killed.
News of Franco’s death spread fast through messaging and social media platforms and the next morning vigils and protests were held fifteen cities across Brazil, including a 5,000 strong crowd in Rio.
A gay black woman brought up in the Maré favela in Rio, Marielle Franco will forever be known as a tireless and fearless fighter for the rights of Afro-Brazilians, the LGBT community, women and low-income communities.
She often bravely spoke out and campaigned against growing police violence in the city’s favelas and political corruption. On March 14 she paid the ultimate price for her outstanding commitment to justice.
What is most noticeably overwhelming about the brutal murder of Marielle Franco is how unlikely her success was. A black female member of the LGBT community in a country overcome by racism, sexism and traditional religious stigma, Franco rose out of the slums to unify and strengthen the persecuted and give a voice to the forgotten.
A Rio Councillor for the Socialism and Liberty Party, Franco began working age 11 to support her family in the favela and aged 19, while pregnant with her daughter she would go on to raise alone, she received a full scholarship to study Social Sciences at one of the best private universities in Brazil, PUC-Rio.
She was inspired to pursue a career in human rights when her best friend was killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and drug dealers in the Maré favela.
She later graduated from the prestigious Fluminense Federal University with a Masters Degree in Public Administration and a thesis on the police violence in the favelas, in which she highlighted that the favelados, or residents of the favelas, must be twice as good at everything to overcome adversity.
Franco was elected as a city councilmember of Rio in 2016, a victory that for many was a huge step forward in the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and corruption in the difficult city.
As a city council member, Franco fought against gender violence, for reproductive rights, and for the rights of favela residents. She chaired the Women’s Defense Commission and formed part of a four-person committee that monitored the federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro.
Working with the Rio de Janeiro Lesbian Front, Franco presented a bill to create a day of lesbian visibility in Rio de Janeiro in August 2017, but the bill was defeated by a vote of 19-17.
The assassination of Marielle Franco is not only a corrupt tragedy but also a huge blow to the black community (which makes up 54% of Brazil) for whom Franco was an active beacon of hope.
80% of Brazil’s parliament and 95% of the Senate is white, only 2 black senators have ever been elected, while women hold only 22% of senior positions and just 2.4% of them are black. As one of the only 4 black council members in Rio, a gay woman, and the only Councillor to ever be brought up in a favela, Franco represented the marginalised.
‘Her greatest victory was simply just being there and representing us’ said Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus, an Afro-Brazilian college professor who plans to run for a seat in Congress in the October 2018 elections.
‘It was a victory for all the groups who have been historically excluded. Her occupation of this space; the approval of her laws; her presence in the debates; realization of events; all of this are indicators of her success.’
Seventeen of the world’s fifty most violent cities are in Brazil according to NGO ‘Security, Justice and Peace’, drug gangs battle for turf and run the favelas with violence and intimidation while the government looks on.
3 of Rio de Janeiro’s last 4 governors have been charged with corruption and money for underprivileged causes is not being spent, the government could not pay its bills in 2016 and was bailed out by the federal government.
In February 2018, in response to the increasing crime numbers in Rio, President Michel Temer authorised putting an army general in charge of Rio’s police force in what is known as a federal intervention, a move that has been widely criticised as a political strategy employed by the current conservative government to generate fear and gain votes in the upcoming presidential elections.
The militarisation of police powers was fervently opposed by Franco, who formed a 4 person committee to monitor the federal intervention in Rio.
Like the Grenfell Tower disaster and the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, this incident has attracted intense international attention, with many around the world calling for an extensive investigation to drastically reform crime in Brazil.
Prominent actors, writers and filmmakers including Noam Chomsky, Thandie Newton, Edward Snowden and Pamela Anderson have all put their names to a demand for an investigation into Franco’s murder.
‘Given that Marielle’s murder bears all the hallmarks of a targeted assassination, we call for the creation of an independent commission comprised of prominent and respected national and international human rights and legal experts and tasked with carrying out an independent investigation of the murder of Marielle Franco with the full cooperation of state judicial and police authorities.’
Her death is still being investigated but the general consensus is that Franco’s ongoing campaign against police violence and government corruption and recent denouncements of Rio’s police brutality and military intervention led to her assassination, and the current evidence supports this hypothesis.
The Intercept Brasil reports that one very plausible line of inquiry pinpoints ‘militias’, mafia whose members include both serving and former police officers, as potential suspects.
The bullets used to kill her and her driver were from a batch sold to the military police in 2006 and later stolen, confirmed Public Secretary Minister Raul Jungmann. Jungmann claims that the same bullets were used in a massacre in São Paulo in August 2015 when seventeen people were shot, and for which 3 military police officers and 1 local officer were convicted of homicide.
The local and international outpour of anger and sadness at the death of Marielle Franco cannot be ignored. With influential attention both in Brazil and internationally, it is possible that enough pressure can be put on the necessary powers to achieve justice, and reform the corruption that holds cities like Rio de Janeiro in its grasp. Brazilian singer Elza Soares said of Franco ‘Your voice will echo in us. Let’s scream.’