Rio de Janeiro, and increasingly the rest of Brazil, is mourning the assassination of Marielle Franco, aged 38, on Wednesday, March 14. A popular Rio City Council member, Marielle and her driver were gunned down by unidentified assailants as she returned from a meeting.
Marielle was elected to the 51-member Rio city council in 2016, winning the fifth-highest number of votes. Born and brought up in the Complexo de Maré, one of Rio’s largest favela (squatter settlement) communities, she graduated from Rio’s Catholic University and the Federal Fluminense University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. She championed human rights with a special focus on violence against black favela youth and creating opportunities for Afro-Brazilian women. Just four days before her death, she had accused Rio’s Military Police of killing black youths in the favela of Acarí, long the scene of police violence in Rio. It is suspected that her death was a retaliation by police for her public statements.
Public reaction to Marielle’s death has been swift and massive. Thousands have marched in downtown Rio, followed by similar demonstrations in São Paulo, Brasília, and other state capitals throughout the country. Protests have been characterized by a phrase chanted by demonstrators and printed on banners: “Marielle presente”(“Marielle is with us”).
President Michel Temer has implemented a political strategy of military intervention to run Rio’s public safety institutions: the military and civil police, firefighters and prisons. With the justification that Rio’s violence rates have climbed to unsustainable levels since the end of the Olympics, in February, President Temer appointed an army general to oversee a public safety system that has suffered from severe budget constraints and inadequate personnel and equipment. Temer’s actions, just seven months before October’s presidential election, are seen as a last-ditch effort to “clean up” Rio and show the nation that he can have one successful policy after a series of political failures. His approval rating is currently in the single digits. Marielle’s assassination must be considered within this broader approach of military build-up in Brazil’s public safety institutions.
Marielle’s death on Temer’s watch shows the hollowness of that approach and, indeed, the futility of a public safety system that insists on seeing the poor and the courageous as the enemy.
*This article was written by WOLA Senior Fellow Elizabeth Leeds, expert on police reform and citizen security in Brazil.