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.
Born and raised in the Maré favela, a sprawling low-income district in northern Rio de Janeiro, Ms. Franco became a critic of police brutality and government neglect of poor areas of her city as she pursued a master’s degree in public policy.
She then worked for a decade on the staff of a local council member, helping him investigate militias, heavily-armed paramilitary groups made up of former and active military and police personnel, before mounting a successful bid for her own seat in 2016.
The council chamber was awash in gay pride flags and crackling with cheers when Ms. Franco made her inaugural address at a city hall hearing in February 2017, looking at once radiant and a bit taken aback by all the attention.
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.
His silence, she said, is a key part of a reckoning for Brazil that is necessary, if painful.
“For years we sold a postcard image of paradise, the country of Carnival, of happy, cordial people,” Ms. Benício said. “The execution of Marielle, and the election of the current president, revealed to the world that we are racist, that we are sexist, misogynist, LGBT-phobic.”
“We need to start dealing with that,” she said. “We need to start deconstructing a political system that has always been dominated by white men.”
Mr. Bolsonaro and his sons have come under scrutiny over their perspectives and ties to militias. The president has in the past defended militias as a way of imposing a parallel but iron-fisted rule. As recently as last year, he said in an interview with a Brazilian radio station that areas controlled by these paramilitary groups “have no violence.”
One of the president’s sons, Flávio Bolsonaro, employed until last year the wife and mother of a former police officer suspected of being a senior militia member.
And this week, once the two suspects were arrested in connection with Mr. Franco’s death, the Bolsonaros found their links to the men under the spotlight, which increased the unease many critics felt with his administration.
One of the suspects, Ronnie Lessa, lived in the seaside condominium in Rio de Janeiro where Mr. Bolsonaro owns a home.
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.”