Assassination of Human Rights Activist, Councilwoman Marielle Franco, Shocks Brazil

Late yesterday evening, City Councilwoman Marielle Franco was shot and killed in the streets of Rio de Janeiro while returning from an event encouraging the empowerment of young black Brazilians. Her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed. Initial reports indicate that this was a targeted assassination.

Franco was a well-known activist in Rio, who fought tirelessly on behalf of women, the black community, LGBTQ+, and all others who are marginalized. She was a staunch defender of human rights and an outspoken critic of police violence in a city plagued by extra-judicial killings.

To her constituents, Franco was also a symbol of hope: a gay black woman, born in a favela, who won election to the City Council in 2016 with the fifth highest number of votes. She was the only black female council member.

Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have both condemned her killing. The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, called it a “brutal assassination” leaving the city mourning “the loss of its unforgettable and unequaled daughter.” President Michel Temer said in a statement earlier today that Franco’s murder was “an affront to democracy.”

Franco’s death brings a new immediacy and attention to the issue of violence in Rio, as well as debate over the federal military intervention. Temer said her death strengthened the government’s resolve to improve public safety in Rio, amid widespread concern over public security among Brazilians. Yet others have expressed doubt over the military intervention. On Tuesday, United Nations human rights officials said they had “profound concern” about the military intervention, citing a lack of safeguards in the presidential decree authorizing the use of military forces. Only a few days before her death, Franco had joined the city commission tasked with oversight of this federal intervention.

Even as Franco’s colleagues in the City Council honored her memory, crowds gathered outside the council chamber in Rio de Janeiro chanting, “not one step backwards.” Just two days earlier, Franco had posted a haunting question on Twitter:

Mais um homicídio de um jovem que pode estar entrando para a conta da PM. Matheus Melo estava saindo da igreja. Quantos mais vão precisar morrer para que essa guerra acabe?

One more killing of a young man that could be credited to the police. Matheus Melo was leaving church [when he was killed]. How many others will have to die before this war ends?

It is far too early to know what the impact of Franco’s assassination will be in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazilian society more broadly. It is clear that her death has sent shockwaves across Brazil and around the world, bringing greater awareness to the issues Franco championed in life: the fight to empower women, and black women in particular; the fight against violence and the abuse of power; the fight for human dignity and the right to live without fear. Politicians are promising justice for Franco and Gomes, but true justice in this case requires more than sending the assassins to jail. It requires more fundamental changes to ensure justice and human dignity for all.

Tags:
Anna is the Program Associate at the Brazil Institute and is a specialist in U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-Brazil relations. 
More posts by Anna C. Prusa