A Year After Her Execution, Marielle Franco Has Become a Rallying Cry in a Polarized Brazil

A Year After Her Execution, Marielle Franco Has Become a Rallying Cry in a Polarized Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO — The question hangs heavily over this city: “Who killed Marielle Franco?”

It is raised in graffiti in virtually every neighborhood, emblazoned on T-shirts and written across banners displayed defiantly at mass demonstrations.

This week, just days before the one-year anniversary of her execution, prosecutors provided a partial answer, charging two former police officers with carrying out the killing. The case’s main questions — including who ordered the killing and why — remain unanswered.

A year after her execution, the call for justice for Ms. Franco — a black, gay, feminist Rio de Janeiro city councilmember who was raised poor — has morphed into a rallying cry in a deeply-polarized nation for those who felt represented by her.

Her name and image have become an antithesis to the dominant political forces in Brazil as the right-wing President, Jair Bolsonaro, settles into office.

But critics are afraid his policies could worsen aspects of Brazil’s epidemic of violence, which includes a staggering number of people killed by police, a rate of killings of women that experts call alarming, and a systematic targeting of gay and transgender people.

The killing of Ms. Franco — who stood for many of those groups that now feel endangered — shocked and divided this violence-weary nation. But it also injected a life-or-death sense of urgency into the rights movements she espoused.

It also helped propel the political careers of black women, including three who now sit on the council where Ms. Franco, until her death, stood alone.

“Marielle still represents, if only in memory, a threat to the status quo,” said Renata da Silva Souza, her former chief of staff, who was one of the black women elected to the council last year.

“She embodied the people who can be killed” in Brazil with impunity, Ms. Souza said.

Ms. Franco died last year on the evening of March 14 in downtown Rio de Janeiro, when a gunman pumped several bullets into the car she was riding as she left a work event.

She was killed instantly. So was her driver, Anderson Gomes.

Within days, Ms. Franco, 38, a rising political star from a socialist party who had little name recognition outside political circles in her hometown, became a global symbol of resistance to the rising conservative tide. What made the killing particularly jarring for many Brazilians was how rare of a phenomenon she was.

Being black, maintaining strong ties to the favela where she was raised, and being open about being in a same-sex relationship made Ms. Franco unique in Brazilian politics — and a role model for people who do not see themselves represented in a system dominated by white men.

“She was an inspiration,” said Dani Monteiro, another black council member elected after Ms. Franco’s death. “Suddenly you’re no longer invisible in a space where we had always been invisible.”

Throughout her life, Ms. Monteiro said she felt surrounded by white and lighter-skinned people who instinctively relegated people like her to the background.

“Black people are useful to serve coffee or clean the floor,” she said, describing the sense of exclusion that was a constant in her life. “If they don’t do that, they’re criminals.”

During her time on the council Ms. Franco condemned the decision by the federal government to place the military in charge of security in the state, and continued to fight against police brutality and militia presence in Rio.

But colleagues and fellow activists say they saw no sign that her political work put her in imminent risk.

As shock over the killing faded, investigators and allies of Ms. Franco began to suspect the crime had been carried out by militia members.

“Militias in Rio de Janeiro today constitute an important power structure with tentacles in different spheres of power,” said Pedro Strozenberg, the ombudsman at Rio de Janeiro’s public defender’s office.

After Ms. Franco’s killing, Mr. Bolsonaro and his sons, who are also politicians, were strikingly silent about the crime, the most shocking political assassination in Brazil in years. Mônica Benício, Ms. Franco’s surviving partner, said this was troubling — but not surprising.

The other, Elcio Vieira de Queiroz, had posted a photo on his Facebook page in which he appears standing alongside Mr. Bolsonaro in a friendly embrace.

Police officials also disclosed that a daughter of one of the two suspects had dated one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons.

Mr. Bolsonaro has said he did not know the men, and police have said that their ties to the Bolsonaro family were not relevant to the investigation into Ms. Franco’s killing.

Faced with a new government that they view as hostile to the rights of minorities, activists from the groups Ms. Franco was part of have become bolder and more defiant since her death.

The black women who ran for office in Rio de Janeiro after her killing were mindful of the risks they were taking, said Mônica Francisco, another of the black women who won a seat on the council. But it would have been more dangerous to retreat in fear, she said.

“Marielle understood that in order to remain alive, it is necessary to occupy spheres of power,” she said. “It’s ironic, but true.”

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