One year after the assassination of Marielle Franco, ‘the struggle continues’
Rio de Janeiro — “People used to stop Marielle in the street, to hug her, to tell her how she represented them, to take photos with her,” said Mônica Benício, the widow of Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman, human rights defender, and urban activist Marielle Franco, in a short documentary produced by The Guardian in December 2018.
It has been one year since Franco, along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, was murdered in downtown Rio on the evening of March 14, 2018. The search for their killers reached a critical moment just this week when homicide investigators arrested two former military police officers, Ronnie Lessa and Elcio Vieira de Queiroz, on suspicion of the crime. The authorities said that Lessa opened fire on the car containing Franco and Gomes and killed them, while Vieira de Queiroz acted as the driver. Authorities also claimed that Lessa had used a German submachine gun, a gun used exclusively by police in Brazil.
“She was a Black, gay, woman from the favela”, said Benício. “And that’s the most disposable body in this city.”
There was little doubt from the beginning that Franco’s killers were motivated by a growing movement to silence the voices of marginalized people in Brazil and actively suppress their rights, which culminated in the election of fascist leader Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency last October. Franco had worked diligently to expose and curtail police violence in favela communities, which often results in the deaths of young Black residents. Her work often provoked backlash from those who favored increasing both the presence and the powers of Rio’s military police. One of its squadrons, the 41st Military Police Battalion, is estimated to have been responsible for 567 deaths between 2011 and 2018.
The men arrested early Tuesday for Franco’s murder were both former members of the military police. Investigators believe that Lessa and Vieira de Queiroz were part of an extra-state militia, one of many that operate in Rio to protect organized crime and government complicity. They are frequently associated with white supremacy and support for military dictatorship in Brazil.
It was in response to this organized crime that Franco loudly advocated for monitoring and restrictions on police powers, as well as for accountability from the government and political elite for the flourishing gang violence that disproportionately targets young Black people.
Indeed, Franco’s brutal assassination shone a spotlight on “Black youth genocide,” as many refer to the death toll in Rio’s favelas in recent years. One such case was that of seven-year-old Fernanda Adriana Caparica Pinheiro. On February 15, 2017, while playing in a park near her home in the Maré favela, she was shot in the chest by a stray bullet from a shootout between rival drug-trafficking gangs and died from her injury. In archival footage from a speech in the city legislature, as shown in The Guardian’s documentary, Franco said, “It is essential that PSOL join this debate. Especially today, [when] one more life was taken, that of a seven-year-old child in Maré.”
In her short career as a politician, she successfully proposed many laws in support of poor, Black, and LGBTIQ communities, such as establishing birthing and child care centers, implementing an anti-harassment program on public transport, and enabling trans people to have their chosen name on official city documentation.
Despite her death, Marielle Franco’s life and work live on. At the many vigils and protest events organized worldwide in the wake of Franco’s death, supporters chanted, “Marielle Vive!” (Marielle Lives!) and “Somos sementes!” (We are all seeds!). And indeed, her supporters and constituents have carried on her political project to build a new society for all in Brazil.
In May of 2018, the Rio de Janeiro legislature passed five bills that had been introduced by Franco: establishing night-time child care for women who work double shifts and/or are pursuing study; a day to honor slave resistance leader Tereza de Benguela and celebrate all Black women; a marketing campaign on public transit across Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness for violence against women; a socio-educational program for young people who have been in prison; and an initiative to improve data collection on women’s health in the city. Six Black women stood for office in the city council last October, calling themselves “Black Women for Marielle.” Four were elected—Dani Monteiro, Renata Souza, Talíria Petrone, and Mônica Francisco—all of whom were Franco’s former advisors. On November 14, 2018, supporters launched the publication of Franco’s Master’s thesis, an analysis of police powers in Rio’s favelas. Streets throughout the world have been symbolically re-named “Rua Marielle Franco” (Marielle Franco Street). And today, hundreds of memorial events will take place across the globe.
Still, there’s no doubt that accountability for her murder and the crimes she fought against have become even more difficult battles since the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in the October elections. He actively campaigned on an anti-poor, anti-Black, and anti-LGBTI platform, and many activists have subsequently gone into hiding, fearing a return to the mass persecution of civilians who opposed the country’s former military dictatorship, which ended in 1985. Unravelling the extensive connections between politicians, media, police, organized crime, and fascist ideologues has become simultaneously a task of utmost danger and utmost importance. It is particularly notable that the case has a specific connection to Bolsonaro. Vieira de Queiroz lived in the same luxury gated community as the president. Bolsonaro’s son dated de Queiroz’s daughter, and a photo of Bolsonaro and de Queiroz with their arms around each other has been circulating. Whether these factors will be ultimately relevant to the case or not, the proximity of one suspect in Franco’s murder to the president of Brazil is concerning, and as much pressure as possible must be brought to bear on ensuring that the truth comes out. In any event, the quest for justice for Franco’s death certainly does not end with the arrests of Lessa and Vieira de Queiroz.
After the news of the arrests broke on Tuesday, Mônica Benício tweeted, “The most urgent and necessary answer of all is still missing: who ordered Marielle’s murder?”
“I hope I do not have to wait another year to find out,” she added.
As human rights defenders in Brazil have been saying for decades: “a luta continua” (“the struggle continues”).
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