A year after Marielle Franco’s murder, violence still haunts Rio

Mia Alberti 14 Mar 2019
Rights groups say there were record number of police killings and racial violence in the Brazilian city in 2018.

It took nearly a year for Brazilian police to make an arrest in the murder of black activist and Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco.
Police said on Tuesday they had arrested two former police officers over the murders of Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes. 
According to investigators, the two former officers drove up beside the vehicle where Franco, Gomes and the councilwoman’s press secretary were waiting on March 14, 2018, and shot Franco and Gomes dead.
Franco, who was a lesbian, regularly denounced police brutality, especially in the favelaswhere she was raised. She also called for the rights of women and the LGBT community.
In announcing the arrests, prosecutors agreed with the family’s suspicions that Franco’s murder was politically motivated.
It is undisputed that Franco was killed “because of the political causes that she defended”, the prosecutor’s office said in its report.
The activist’s murder prompted massive nationwide protests against police violence and racism and sparked a national Black Lives Matter movement.
But a year later, rights groups and Franco’s supporters say not much has changed, and in some cases has only gotten worse. 
“Marielle’s death should’ve translated to bigger protections for women, LGBT, black and poor communities, but it didn’t,” said Maria Laura, director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Brazil.
Laura added that rights abuses and executions committed by police contribute to “a cycle of violence” in the city. 
Record number of killings
According to HRW, there were 1,530 police killings in Rio de Janeiro last year, the largest number ever recorded in the city. Although Laura said, “many deaths are legitimate … many are executions”.
Rio police did not respond to requests for comment. 
This year, several police shootings in the city’s favelas have caused outrage among many Brazilians. 
In late January, residents of one favela said two people were killed by snipers shooting from a nearby police tower. Police said no sniper operation was ordered and opened an investigation, as did the prosecutor’s office. 
About three weeks later, a police raid in the Fogueteiro favela killed 13 people – the majority of whom were from the same family. In a statement, police said it responded with fire after being shot at first.
Last week, a video showing a police helicopter showering the Complexo de Alemao favela with bullets went viral. Police said it was conducting a drug bust but did not clarify if the helicopters fired live ammunition. Police also said no injuries were reported
“There is a latent impunity for crimes in general in Brazil, but especially for homicides and even more for homicides committed by police officers,” Laura told Al Jazeera.
She added that HRW frequently registers other abuses by security forces, including shootings at close range, torture, beatings and a lot of mishandling in investigations, such as messing with the crime scene, “placing the gun in the dead person’s hand”, and failing to talk to witnesses or to collect evidence.
Responding to similar allegations made by HRW last year, the city’s secretary of state for safety at the time said it “has as its main guidelines, the preservation of human life and dignity, controlling crime rates and the qualified and integral action of its police”.
It added “most gun-seizing operations happen after an intense shooting that ends, often victimising police and residents”.
Historically [police] always tried to control the black, poor communities. Today the war on drugs is their excuse for the violent control of our bodies.”
In 2017, there were a record 63,895 homicides nationwide. About 70 percent of those victims were black, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (FBSP). The favela communities are some of the most affected.
In an attempt to curb violence in the country, the government, under the administration of former Brazilian President Michel Temer, deployed a military intervention in Rio’s favelas for most of 2018.
Shootings and drug busts became an almost daily reality for residents. Although the government considered the operation a success, most Rio residents said not much changed, according to a poll by the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety. The same study revealed that almost one-third of those surveyed had been caught in the middle of a shooting during the intervention.
Wilson Witzel, Rio de Janeiro state’s governor, declined to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, but after winning the election last year, he pledged to “slaughter” criminals. He told local media in January “organised crime can no longer have the freedom to carry weapons of war and be treated romantically as people who didn’t have opportunities”.
‘Franco was important voice’
Raull Santiago, resident and community leader of Complexo do Alemao, said he believes most police aggression is motivated by racism and prejudice.
“Historically they always tried to control the black, poor communities. Today the war on drugs is their excuse for the violent control of our bodies,” he told Al Jazeera.
He added the only dialogue the government offers is “through the barrel of a gun”.
Santiago explained that is why Franco was so important. Because she was “a black, lesbian ‘favelada’ woman occupying a space of power that was always taken by men” and who dared to speak up.
“I believe that’s why she became a target,” he said.
People gather in Lapa neighbourhood, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during a demonstration calling for justice over the murder of Marielle Franco [File: Carl de Souza/AFP] 
Franco’s life – like many others living in Rio – was affected by the flaws in public security but also by the powerful and dangerous armed groups. They control 25 percent of the city’s territory, where more than two million people live, according to the Globo news channel.
These armed groups extort residents for access to basic resources such as water, electricity, internet or security and they coordinate with state forces such as the military, police forces and even politicians.
“It’s like the state is just a regulating agency that outsources territorial control and management of public services to these criminal groups,” said Jacqueline Muniz, anthropologist, and researcher at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF).
“Security in Rio is governed by fear and not against it,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The price to pay for this are the lives of black, poor communities, and [for them] these lives are cheap,” she said, referring to both residents and police officers who often come from the same communities they patrol.
‘Send a message’
Relations between government agents and criminal groups are not new in Brazil or Latin America, but the suspects in Franco’s case have been linked to the most powerful figures in the country.
In January, police said they believed a gang headed by Adriano Nobrega, a former police officer who was distinguished by Flavio Bolsonaro, a senator in Rio de Janeiro and the son of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, was involved in Franco’s shooting. Nobrega’s wife and mother had also been members of Flavio Bolsonaro’s staff.
And one of the men arrested on Tuesday in connection with Franco’s murder lives in the same compound as one of Jair Bolsonaro’s houses.
Anielle Silva (L), sister of activist Marielle Franco, cries at a memorial in Rio de Janeiro [File: Diego Herculano/AFP]
Jurema Werneck, director of Amnesty International in Brazil, said she believed Franco’s case could be an opportunity for the new government to take a stance against violence.
“This is their moment to send a message to the Brazilian society that the killing of human rights defenders is not tolerable,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Marielle’s murder was also because she fought against [police corruption]. It was an attempt to silence her and the social movement that demands a society with no violence,” she added.
“That’s why it’s so crucial to find justice, so the government can show this cannot go on.”