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Death of Brazilian councilor brings outcry for change

Donna Bowater London | Priscilla Moraes Rio de Janeiro
March 23, 2018

More than a week after murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco was laid to rest in Rio de Janeiro, the dust is far from settling. Brazil has been confronted with its inequalities, Donna Bowater and Priscilla Moraes report.

Brasilien Trauer  Marielle Franco
Image: picture-alliance/AP/

For a country so recently mired in institutional corruption, backhanders and political turmoil, it was nevertheless impossible to dissociate Marielle Franco's politics from who she was.

A black, gay mother from one of Rio's most notorious favelas, she was the publicly elected face of the most disenfranchised groups in Brazil, where more than 60 percent of the prison population is black and where a record number of homophobic killings took place last year.

Read more: Brazilians protest death of councilwoman Marielle Franco

She was also a vocal critic of the police and recent military intervention, in which the Brazilian army has assumed control of the bankrupted state's public security. "It's a farce," the 38-year-old said in an interview a month before she was killed. "And it's not hashtag talk. It really is a farce."

A massive photo of Marielle Franco hangs on the wall of a staircase on the street in Sao Paulo
Franco was a black woman, openly gay and a single-mother, that is, a minority several times over in BrazilImage: picture-alliance/AP/

On Wednesday, March 14, she was gunned down in a car along with her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. A press officer, who had also been in the car, survived.

In the aftermath, theories around Franco's slaying were publicly debated, revealing Brazil's social prejudices and political tribalism.

But one conclusion quickly became apparent: this black, gay mother and councilor had been deliberately targeted.

'An attempt to silence'

Taliria Petrone, a councilor in the neighboring city of Niteroi and a friend of Franco's, said public office had neither been an ambition for either woman.

"Since we started thinking of the idea of being candidates, which was never a desire of mine or hers, we had a very similar motivation to tackle this task, which is to remove the invisibility of so many voices and so many struggles of the majority of the Brazilian people," she said, speaking at one of several public demonstrations organized in the wake of Franco's murder.

Taliria Petrone, a councilwoman in Niteroi at a demonstration in Rio de Janeiro protesting the murder of Marielle Franco
Taliria Petrone says killing Franco will only amplify her voiceImage: DW/P. Moraes

"So I have no doubt that Marielle's priority was to be an instrument for the voice of the majority of Brazilian people. The majority of people are outraged, not only by the brutality of her death, but because her death was a political execution, an attempt to silence these voices."

Petrone has herself suffered threats, which she said had become a greater concern since Franco's killing. Yet those closest to Franco said there had been no sign she had become a target.

"But in killing Mari, they raised Mari," Petrone added. "To kill Mari is to make Mari ever more alive in every corner of the world. If they thought they would inspire silence, I hear Mari's voice echoing."

Read more: Brazilians struggle over reparations from slavery era

Not only did Franco's assassination coincide with the start of the army's presence in Rio, it also comes ahead of this year's watershed presidential election, two years after Brazil's first female president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached.

Overlooked by mainstream media

Some believe the councilor's murder will be a decisive factor for an electorate that has regularly taken to the streets in recent years in protest amid rising levels of populism.

"It was a terrible moment, it was tragic, but I think it can have an effect in the pre-election period, as the discourse of the extreme right collapses," said Ivana Bentes, director of the School of Communication at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Thousands gather in front of the Municipal Theater during a protest against the murder of Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro, on March 20, 2018
Thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest Franco's assassinationImage: picture-alliance/AP/

In particular, Bentes highlighted the public backlash against Franco's treatment by the mainstream Brazilian media, which had often overlooked her activism despite her polling as the fifth most voted-for councilor in the 2016 election.

After her death, her party, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), received thousands of complaints about coverage that suggested she had links to criminal gangs and drugs.

"I've not seen such a strong reaction to fake news as there was now," Bentes added. "The pre-election this year will be marked by fake news."

'Voice of the people'

Despite this media blind spot, Franco nevertheless reached marginalized groups through her activism.

Bruna Cristina Rodrigues de Melo, a street vendor who often sold drinks at public protests, said she regularly saw Franco at demonstrations and identified with her criticisms of security forces after losing her 18-year-old son in a confrontation with police.

"I feel represented by her," she said, working at a public event for Franco while also looking after four children, including her orphaned granddaughter.

Bruna Cristina Rodrigues de Melo with two children from her family at a protest against the murder of Mareille Franco, in Rio de Janeiro
Bruna Cristina Rodrigues de Melo (right) felt represented by Marielle FrancoImage: DW/P. Moraes

"I think we need the end of the military police, not the end of police officers, but the end of corrupt police, who come to the favela asking for bribes, and, when there's no money, end up shooting."

'Attack on democracy'

Newton de Oliveira, a former undersecretary-general for security in Rio and professor at Mackenzie Rio University, described the killing as "the greatest attack that democracy has suffered in Brazil" since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.

Read more: Indigenous land demarcation sparks divisions in Brazil 

He said the state needed to invest more in police intelligence and restructuring to regain public trust and minimize the crossfires and shootouts that put hundreds of innocent lives at risk in Rio's favela communities.

Yet despite the constant proximity of violent crime and death, there remains hope among the thousands who have joined demonstrations in the past 10 days. Franco's mother and sister attended a tribute in Congress on Thursday, where they asked for justice and pledged to continue her fight.

Demonstrators huddle together next to a drawing of Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro
Franco's murder could revitalize activismImage: Reuters/R. Moraes

"I think now, there exists a Brazil that was born when she died," said Elisa Lucinda, a poet who spoke at a rally in Rio on Tuesday night. "And it won't stop. She has become a symbol of human rights."

Her legacy, said Petrone, would be reinvigorating human-rights activism across Brazil.

"Nothing was worth the loss of Mari," she said. "We can't let her die.

"There will be no more silence in the struggle of all the human rights activists in the world, and this is Mari living in them."