Image Credit: Kiki Machado
As a human rights defender and spokesperson for the favela, Marielle Franco was a thorn in the side of the powerful. As a poor, black, lesbian, single mother, she was an affront to Brazil’s evangelical right wing. In life, she was a powerful voice for the oppressed that many reactionaries were glad to see silenced. In death, she has become a symbol of the struggle against impunity and inequality.
As a councilwoman representing one of the largest favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Franco advocated for the rights of the poor and socially excluded and denounced extrajudicial killings by police officers who work for paramilitary gangs, known as militias.
One year ago today she was executed, along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, apparently by these criminals. On March 12, 2019, just two days before the anniversary of her death, two former police officers were arrested on suspicion of her murder.
One of them appears in a picture with his arm wrapped around the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro – the two men were neighbours at a luxury housing beachfront complex in Rio. The other had a friend who kept an arsenal of war weapons at home – 117 automatic rifles.
President Bolsonaro’s son dated the daughter of one of the Military Police officers charged with her murder. Another of his sons, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, employed the wife and mother-in-law of one of Rio’s most powerful militias in his election campaign team.
But despite these first arrests, the central question remains – who ordered the hit? And why? Prosecutors stated:
“It is incontestable that Marielle Franco was summarily executed for her political activity in the defence of the causes she defended.”
Brazil is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for human rights activists, particularly those fighting for women’s and LGBT rights. But legally same-sex couples have equal rights, but in practice, prejudice runs deep and is often accompanied by violence.
More LGBT people are murdered each year in Brazil than anywhere else in the world: 44% of all such killings worldwide, according to Front Line Defenders, occur in Brazil. Transgender Europe documented 167 LGBT murders in Brazil between October 2017 and September 2018, followed by Mexico (71 victims), United States (28) and Colombia (21).
Fear is rising among Brazil’s LGBT community that homophobic violence will get still worse with Bolsonaro in power, famous for his racist and homophobic comments.
Earlier this year, the only openly gay congressman in Brazil, Jean Wyllys, a close friend of Franco’s, left the country after receiving multiple death threats. His exile was celebrated by one of the president’s sons who tweeted: “Go with God and be happy.”
Femicides are also on the rise in Brazil – on average, four women have been murdered each day so far this year, in 71% of cases, they were killed by their partners. In the last 12 months, 1.6 million women were victims of domestic violence and 22 million (31% of the women’s population) denounced sexual harassment.
These are not isolated problems. As the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR ) stated, they reflect:
“sexist values deeply rooted in Brazilian society, and black women as well as female politicians and human rights activists, like Marielle Franco, are most at risk of being killed.”
Defenders of the rights of indigenous people and environmental activists are also killed at a staggering rate in Brazil, and the authorities have a poor record of investigating such crimes. In the majority of cases, no-one is ever held to account – not even the hired killers who pull the trigger, much less the powerful business interested in silencing inconvenient opposition.
Now, with Marielle’s killing condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Brazil’s government finds itself under an enormous global pressure. Amnesty International has been pushing for an independent and impartial investigation to make sure that those responsible, including those who ordered the crime, are brought to justice.
These calls were echoed by a group of international human rights activists who signed an open letter published by the Guardian newspaper, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Angela Davis, Edward Snowden, Gael García Bernal, Oliver Stone, Shami Chakrabarti and others.
“Marielle’s activism earned her many powerful enemies,” they wrote.
Marielle, a rising star with passionate support among the poorest and most excluded communities of Rio de Janeiro (and across Brazil) was seen by many as a threat to the country’s powerful elite, who are mainly white, male, straight and homophobic, and were hungry to regain power after 14 years of the leftist Labour Party in control.
Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate with a thin legislative record, running as an outsider, promised to wipe out corruption, to tackle the financial crisis gripping Brazil, and to bring down the alarming statistics of violent crimes.
He also, in a clear echo of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, gave his voters licence to be politically incorrect against women, LGBT, black and poor people.
The ex-army captain, who has praised torture and said Brazil’s dictatorship didn’t go far enough, has a long history of making offensive comments. As a congressman he said International Human Rights Day in Brazil should be called an International Day of Delinquents because human rights activists defend criminals. He told a congresswoman that she was too ugly to be worth raping, and said if he had a gay son he would not be able to love him and would prefer that he die in an accident.
Bolsonaro may have won the largest prize, but Marielle Franco’s execution did not silence the voices she represented – quite the contrary. The hashtag #MariellePresente has become a rallying cry for activists, and the grassroots response to her murder is changing the face of Brazilian politics. More than one thousand black women ran for office in last October’s election for the National Congress, plus state and local assemblies – a 60% increase over the 2014 election.
Marielle’s widow, Monica Benicio, has said that these results gave some meaning to the senseless tragedy of 14 March 2018, and that the support she received from all over the world helped her understand that she is not doing this for Marielle anymore but for everyone, for a collective spirit and for a battle that has to keep going.
As we say in Brazil, everything ends in samba. At this year’s carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Mangueira, one of the most traditional and celebrated samba schools in the country paid tribute to Brazil’s forgotten heroes and heroines – black and indigenous people, symbols of resistance. Marielle Franco was there, her face printed on pink and green flags (the colours of the school) along with a message to the government: “education is our weapon.” Her name was sung by millions of people, and Mangueira was crowned champion.
“Marielle was not only a human being, she was an idea, a force,” said one of the samba composers, Daivid Domenic. “She became a fighting flag.”