On March 14, 2018, in the center of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, two gunmen in a car murdered Municipal Chamber Councilor Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Unlike most of the city’s political leaders, Marielle came from Rio’s favelas. And many of the favelas’ millions of marginalized and mostly black residents saw her as their champion.
For these people, and for Marielle’s allies in the human rights movement, her death is not simply a murder. It is an assassination.
Marielle was elected to Rio’s city government in 2016. She was labeled an “outsider,” and her victory that year was not only the second-largest in Rio, but the fifth-largest in all of Brazil. She was one of the precious few elected officials in Brazil who are black and female, and the only one in Rio’s city council. Marielle was also proudly open about her queer identity and publicly shared her love for her partner of 13 years, Monica Teresa Benicio.
Above all else, Marielle was a fierce advocate for the people of Rio’s favelas, and a tireless campaigner for the empowerment of black women.
Her campaign slogan was “I am because we are,” and her story was more than hers alone. For those on whose behalf she fought, especially the thousands of people living in Rio’s favelas, Marielle gave representation that has long been denied. She was born in a favela and worked for the favelas—seeking to end the massive violence and economic and political marginalization they have long faced, and instead demand their rightful place in Rio and a life with justice, safety, health, and dignity.
The night of her assassination, she had just left an event discussing the power of women to move change. When her killers fired nine times into her vehicle, they were not only trying to assassinate Marielle; they were trying to destroy everything she represented. And they wanted to do it using the same brutal violence that haunts so many of the favelas’ young, black, and poor inhabitants.
Marielle was born in the Complexo Maré, one of Rio’s largest favelas. Officially, Maré and other favelas were unrecognized by the government, leading community-based organizations such as Redes da Maré to launch a community-mapping initiative and force the government’s recognition. Like most other favelas, Maré has been marginalized—both politically and economically.
Yet although the Brazilian government has tried to ignore Maré and the other favelas, the consequences of its devastating “war on drugs” have not. In fact, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, some 61,158 people in Brazil were killed during 2016 alone—the highest such number ever recorded.
Unfortunately, leaders within Brazil’s political establishment seem not only inclined to stay the course, but to double down. Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, signed a decree in February to put the military in control of public security in Rio, supposedly in response to reports of higher incidents of crime during Rio’s carnival celebrations.
But members of Rio’s community contend that the real reason for the military handoff was election-year politics. They further worry that the measure is not only unconstitutional, but could lead to escalated conflict and abuse—the brunt of which would almost surely fall on already vulnerable populations in the favelas.
Marielle was one of those who voiced deep reservations (alongside, it should be noted, Brazil’s top military commander and the United Nations). She was a forceful critic of the plan’s failure to address the root causes of Rio’s ills, as well as the likelihood that its implementation would lead to further violence. Only two weeks before her murder, Marielle was appointed the rapporteur of a special commission, launched by Rio’s city council, to monitor the federal intervention and the militarization of public security.
Marielle stepped up because she understood how policies that overly emphasize aggressive, punitive measures can lead to even more violence. She also understood how these policies disproportionately affected the favelas’ poor and black residents. She was a vocal and prominent advocate against police abuse. Speaking about the police killing of Matheus Melo, a 23-year-old black man, for example, Marielle asked, “How many more must die for this war to end?” She was murdered the very next day.
While no arrests were made in the hours following Marielle’s death, her loss was immediately felt throughout Brazil. In Rio, thousands of people have taken to the streets to honor Marielle and demand justice for her killing. Demonstrations took place elsewhere in the world, too—in South America, the United States, Ireland, and Spain, among others. Numerous Rio-based NGOs and community groups, meanwhile, have committed to documenting the federal intervention, working to promote community safety, and ending the drug war.
Among those who knew her and shared her vision, the pain of Marielle’s death will long remain deeply felt. But as the immediate response to her murder has shown, Marielle’s story—and the dream of a better Rio and a better Brazil for the millions marginalized and harmed that she represented—cannot be so easily erased. She is with us still.