On 14 March 2018, the Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco was killed in a drive-by shooting in central Rio de Janeiro after having participated in a debate with a group of young black women. She died aged 38 together with her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. According to preliminary investigations, the bullets used in the assassination came from a lot sold to the Federal Police which were later stolen.
As a long-time human rights activist who grew up in Maré, a favela in northern Rio de Janeiro where she lived for most of her life, Franco was a rising star in the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). In the 2016 local elections, she was elected to the Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro with 46,502 votes, the fifth-highest vote count out of more than 1,500 candidates.
Franco’s popularity was rooted in her lived experience as a black woman, a lesbian, a single mother and a product of the favelas – all of which informed her politics.
Although she was only in her first term in politics at the time of her murder, her work against police violence, her defence of LGBT rights and her tireless work to combat racism and poverty had already made an impact. She highlighted the issues experienced by women like her – from the lack of childcare available to working-class mothers, to being belittled in the workplace, harassed on the streets and facing violence at home. “I am because we are” was more than her slogan; it actually framed her political commitment.
As Célia Cunha, a political advisor to Gilberto Palmares, a Workers’ Party (PT) congressman in Rio’s Legislative Assembly, explains: “Being a woman is already difficult, but being a black woman is even more difficult because we have to face the prejudice and to prove ourselves all the time.”
For Cunha: “Marielle’s assassination means the death of hope that we can change this racist society, have equal rights, come to power and have a voice, and that this country will belong to everyone. That all of us will be considered citizens.”
Cunha grew up in similar circumstances to Franco and knows many of the challenges she faced intimately: “I live in São Gonçalo, one of the biggest favelas of the Rio metropolitan area with 500,000 inhabitants. I was once stopped by the National Army five times in the same day while going to my mother’s place, which is only a few hundred metres away from my house, whereas white women passed through without any controls.”
Cunha tells Equal Times that growing up, she witnessed the devastating impact that drugs had on her community. As well as losing friends to drug addiction, she saw some of her peers killed by the police or drug gangs. Cunha’s illiterate mother raised six children and fought for everyone to complete secondary school. “I dreamt of becoming a journalist,” continues Cunha, “so, when I passed the entrance exam for the journalism faculty, I asked for a scholarship. I was the only black woman at my university. It was hard, but I got my bachelor’s degree. My main research topics were on young people who ended up being killed for not managing to exit violence, and on projects to tackle the illiteracy”.
Franco also had to fight hard to succeed. Despite becoming a mother at 19, she earned a sociology degree and later graduated with a master’s degree in public administration. But she never forgot where she came from, and combined her strong political activism with social research. Indeed, in her master’s dissertation she analysed and criticised the role of the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) – the public security policy implemented by the state of Rio to reclaim favela territories from the control of local drug gangs.
The violence in Rio
Despite its “Marvellous City” moniker and stunning scenery, Rio has been the site of a violent turf war for many decades. According to the Institute of Public Security, the number of violent deaths recorded in the state of Rio has increased from 6,262 to 6,731 victims over the past year (up 7.5 per cent on 2016 figures). One-third of these homicides took place in the city of Rio, where the violence committed by drug lords has increased along with police corruption – each fuelling the other. As a result, the federal government led by President Michel Temer recently put the national army in charge of security in Rio, headed by General Walter Souza Braga Netto.
According to a survey by the Brazilian pollsters DataFolha, the army intervention has been received positively by 76 per cent of Rio’s inhabitants, although 71 per cent say that the safety situation has not improved.
The problem of violence in Brazilian society has deep roots in the country’s history, mostly characterised by entrenched social exclusion borne from slavery and colonialism.
During the last dictatorship (1964-85), mass migration from the countryside to Brazil’s cities resulted in a proliferation of informal settlements. These places, now known as ‘favelas’, became drug trafficking hotspots due to the marginalisation of its inhabitants coupled with the lack of basic social services, work or educational opportunities.
Arthur Welle, a researcher in economics at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), tells Equal Times that racial inequality is entrenched in Brazilian society. “In Rio it is more evident. According to the Continuous National Household Sample Survey (PNADC), in 2017 black [‘preto’] and mixed-race [‘pardo’] people earned on average 64.3 per cent of the wages of white people. Moreover, while they account for 55 per cent of the state of Rio’s population, they also correspond to 71 per cent of its prison population,” he says.
The most recent census conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010 reported that the city of Rio has 1.4 million people living in favelas.
This means that more than a fifth of Rio’s inhabitants reside in places where the state prefers to send in police tanks rather than provide water, electricity or sanitation services.
The situation worsened in 2016 as a result of an economic crisis that saw Brazil’s economy shrink by 3.6 per cent that year. Decreased tax revenues, due to a reduction of oil royalties, and public fund mismanagement led the then-interim governor of Rio, Francisco Dornelles, to declare a state of financial emergency.
While the entire world was watching the 2016 Olympic Games, public services in Rio all but collapsed. The delay of civil servants’ wages caused several prolonged strikes. Police officers, firefighters and doctors responded only to the most serious emergencies while bus drivers, teachers and waste collectors paralysed their own sectors.
The decline of Brazilian democracy
The recent decision to send in the national army to oversee Rio’s security fits into the conservative strategy acted out by Temer, who was Dilma Rousseff’s vice president and who came to power in 2016 after having supported an impeachment against her. Temer, who is affiliated to the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), took advantage of public support for anti-corruption campaigns, even though he faced corruption charges himself. His reactionary plan became clear as he moved closer to centre-right parties and only appointed white men in his cabinet.
Even if Brazil’s Golden Law (Lei Áurea) officially abolished slavery back in 1888, Brazil has still an undeclared apartheid. Indeed, while 52 per cent of the population is black and mixed-race, they correspond to only 20 per cent of the National Congress, according to the Institute for Socio-economic Studies (INESC). The situation is even worse for women of all races: they account for around 52 per cent of Brazil’s population, but only take up 10 per cent of seats in the federal parliament.
President Temer, who is popular with Brazil elites despite hisvery low approval rating (6 per cent), is working tirelessly to cancel out all efforts made by the progressive governments of Lula (2003-2011) and Rousseff (2011-2016) to reduce the historical inequalities and injustices within Brazilian society.
When Temer launched neoliberal policies such as austerity measures in the health and education sectors, the dismantling of labour market regulation and pensions, as well as the sell-off of the last state-owned firms, Brazil became a political powder keg.
Marielle Franco’s assassination feels like an act of brinkmanship in an already tense political climate.
For this reason, it has resulted in strong indignation and mass protests across Brazil, as well as international condemnation from organisations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Some days before her assassination, Franco publicly denounced the murders of three men following a Military Police operation. In one of her last tweets, she asked: “How many more will have to die for this war to end?”.
Franco was a prominent dissenting voice in a racist and classist society, which made her a target. But her death has triggered a new wave of activism, just at the start of a very long and uncertain presidential election.
One of the main doubts regards Lula’s candidacy, due to an appeal conviction on which the Supreme Federal Court will soon decide. Lula has been sentenced to more than 12 years in prison on trumped-up charges of corruption and money laundering, after a strong political campaign driven by right-wing parties, governmental sectors and the mainstream media.
According to early polling, the right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro – a federal congressman for Rio de Janeiro currently affiliated to the Social Liberal Party (PSL) and known as ‘Brazil’s Donald Trump’ for his homophobic, sexist, racist comments – will have a much greater chance of becoming the next President of Brazil if Lula does not run in the elections.
But Franco’s execution has strengthened the resolve of those fighting for social and economic justice in Brazil. You can kill a woman but not her ideas, and Franco’s death will not have been in vain if it succeeds in galvanising the movements against authoritarianism and exclusion, and helps stop the opening of a new and even more repressive political season.