I first heard about Marielle Franco in April this year. While visiting Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a tourist with my family, I found myself in a bar late one night with an expat who had lived in the country for more than thirty years. (I don’t want to reveal too much about him, for fear of putting him at risk.)
This long-term Rio resident told me – or rather shouted at me, to make himself heard over the impossibly good samba band’s music filling the half-empty venue – that in all the years he had lived here, this was the worst he had seen Brazil’s political situation. That it had gotten so bad he was planning to leave the country. He asked if I was aware of the recent clampdowns. I replied I wasn’t – that I had only arrived a couple of days earlier as a tourist, with embarrassingly little knowledge of local politics.
He said that Brazil was a rich country, but that the corrupt ruling elite was pocketing most of the wealth and abandoning the country’s people to never-ending cycles of poverty and crime. Security forces were cracking down so much that people were afraid to go out. The bars were emptier than he had seen them for years. He spoke of cronyism and oppression with such a heavy heart that I, like him, started to feel despondent.
‘What about the media?’ I asked. ‘Are they asking questions, holding the government to account?’ He shook his head: much of the media were in bed with the government. We sat there for a while, shoulders slumped in mutual despair.
‘There was a woman politician trying to do something, but they shot her,’ he said.
On my way back to the hotel that night, I asked my Uber driver if he felt safe driving around the city at night. He told me that crime was very bad in Rio, and that his dream would be to move with his young family to a safer country, like Canada or Australia. I asked him if he avoided collecting passengers if he felt concerned for his safety. He replied, ‘Yes, I have a baby daughter to think of.’
When I woke the next morning, I recalled the words of the man in the bar: There was a woman politician trying to do something, but they shot her.
Over breakfast, I searched online for ‘woman politician shot in Rio’ and came across a string of articles about Marielle Franco. She was shot dead in her car by two unknown assassins on 14 March, just a few weeks earlier. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed in the attack. Two men in another car ‘fired nine shots at them, four of which struck Franco – three in the head and one in the neck.’ Franco’s press officer, who was in the back seat with Franco, survived with injuries. The attack, it seems, was strategically planned, taking place in one of the few locations on her route without CCTV coverage.
Franco was one of the youngest members of Rio’s municipal council. She was a black woman and single mother, who ‘positioned herself as a representative and defender of poor black women and people from the favelas.’ A self-avowed feminist and fighter for Indigenous rights, she was one of the few willing to speak out against the oppressive policies of the ruling junta.
Franco, a staunch advocate for gay rights in a conservative Catholic country, had been engaged to marry her partner, Monica Tereza Benício, in September next year.
It gave me a chill that Franco was shot only three weeks before our arrival.
Franco was especially critical of the government’s decision, some months earlier, to send the army in to tackle crime in Rio’s favelas. On 13 March, she tweeted her outrage that army officers had shot dead a nineteen-year-old as he walked out of his local church. The next day, two hours after attending a round-table discussion on how young black women could challenge existing power structures, Franco herself was killed.
The bullets that killed Franco were found to have been from a batch bought by the Brazilian federal police in 2006. But the Minister of Public Security, Raul Jungmann, later issued a statement claiming the bullets had been stolen from a post office. The ministry retracted this explanation after the post office publicly denied it.
My family and I spent the next day under a warm blue sky lounging on Rio’s Ipanema Beach. As my wife and daughters sipped virgin mojitos, swam in the cool blue waters of the Atlantic and snoozed under the bright Brazilian sun, I couldn’t quell an insistent, uneasy feeling. Behind the shimmer of this paradise – this resort of the rich and glamorous for many decades – lurked rampant corruption, murder and cover-ups.
On our last day in Brazil, we went on a guided tour in Lapa, one of Rio’s trendier neighbourhoods. There we learned much about Rio’s history, its proud heritage, its Indigenous people, its music, its Carnival. We also learned more about the origins of Rio’s favelas, or slums, scattered throughout the city, usually a few blocks back from the fashionable coastal precincts. These communities first began in the mid-nineteenth century, when legislation was passed liberating Rio’s Afro-Brazilian slaves. After liberation, shanty-towns were set up on free land, but they were left to languish without any government support, resulting in generation upon generation living in increasing disadvantage, poverty and crime. These suburbs were where Marielle Franco grew up, and it was for the people in these communities that she died fighting.
The tour was fascinating, but I also found myself spellbound by our guide – a woman with bleached white hair and a pierced nose, wearing a t-shirt featuring an image of a beautiful, smiling, black woman. The caption underneath told me immediately who this woman was. It read:
Justiça para Marielle.
Quem matou Marielle e Anderson?
(Justice for Marielle. Who killed Marielle and Anderson?)
As we walked through the narrow alleyways of this historic, now bohemian, precinct of Rio, I noticed posters scattered on walls, in railways and outside shops with the same smiling face, the same insistent question: Who killed Marielle Franco? Authorities, it seemed, had taken no action in response to this murder of one of Brazil’s few incorruptible politicians.
Towards the end of the tour I noticed, to my amazement, a new street sign in the centre of the busiest part of this precinct, an area where streets had been closed off for markets and bookstalls, and colourful street art shone out through the grime. This sign read ‘Rua Marielle Franco.’ (Marielle Franco Street.) Incredulous that a street had been named in her honour only four weeks after her death, I asked the guide, pointing to the sign, ‘Did the government do this?’
‘No,’ she replied, ‘the People.’