Marielle Franco was a human rights activist, a feminist and a leading voice in the black rights movement in Brazil. She was popular – the fifth most voted for councilperson in Rio de Janeiro (with 46,000 votes). She was young – only 38 years old. She was honest – a breath of fresh air in the corrupt world of Brazilian politics.
But on the evening of Wednesday, March 14, she was fatally shot.
Marielle was leaving an event, Black Women Changing Power Structures, when an unidentified vehicle approached the car she was in and opened fire, killing her and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes. Nine shots were fired in total. Marielle was shot four times in the head. A press officer sitting in the back seat of the car was also injured, but survived.
Marielle’s killing was political.
On February 16, Brazil’s President Michel Temer signed a decree allowing the country’s military to intervene in the ongoing violence in Rio de Janeiro. Following Temer’s orders, General Walter Souza Braga Netto – supervised by Raul Jungmann, the head of the newly created Ministry of Public Security – immediately took control of all public security operations in the state.
Marielle was a fierce critic of federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro and on February 28, she became head of a commission tasked with monitoring potential abuses associated with it.
Only a couple of weeks later, she was murdered.
Federal intervention is a regular occurrence in Rio de Janeiro – Armed forces have been sent to Rio at least nine times since 1992. In 2013 alone, the army patrolled the streets of Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day, the visit of Pope Francis, and the auction of the Libra oil field.
The army was also sent several times to favelas (poor neighbourhoods), such as the Mare and the Alemao, over the years to try to end continuous violence. In September 2017, 950 soldiers occupied the largest favela in the world, the Rocinha, for about a week to try and resolve a major conflict between drug traffickers. The Alemao was occupied in 2010 and the Mare for 15 months between 2014 and 2015.
Rio de Janeiro is a violent state – yet the deployment of military troops has repeatedly proved to be a failure. The Military Police is known for its abuses, extrajudicial killings and disappearance of suspects. According to human rights activists and security experts, the presence of the army merely amplifies the abuses – and does not solve any problem. According to research carried out with the residents of Mare, the military occupation of the favela did not significantly alter the perception of insecurity and fear.
Since she was elected in 2016, Marielle was vocal in her criticism of the army’s presence in her city, and she publicly denounced the abuses committed by the Military Police. As a human rights defender, she backed the interests of not only the victims of military violence, but also the families of police officers killed on duty. She was always on the side of the victims, whether they are police officers or civilians, demanding justice and change.
Just three days before her death, she criticised the military police for terrorising residents of the Acari favela, the area of activity of the 41st Military Police battalion. According to journalist Andrew Fishman, this battalion is “perhaps Rio’s most corrupt and lawless.” “They have a bloody history and are known to regularly terrorise residents and activists.”
Marielle herself was born and raised in a favela, the Mare. She became a mother at the young age of 19 and faced numerous difficulties in life. But she did not settle for the reality in which she grew up and dedicated her life to transforming the lives of most vulnerable residents of her city. She became an activist to help those in need, and end the abuses she herself faced throughout her short life.
The police ruled out the possibility that her killing was the result of a failed robbery attempt. We still don’t know what happened on that Wednesday evening, and who killed this young, promising politician. But her death was not “ordinary”. Her execution was different from thousands of other senseless murders committed in Brazil each year. Her killing was also different from those the Military Police carry out almost on a daily basis against the most vulnerable members of the Brazilian society.
Marielle’s murder was a political crime and no efforts were made to disguise this. Her killers did not even try to make us think for a moment that she might have been yet another unlucky casualty of the meaningless violence that ravage the country.
Her assassination was a clear message for all human rights defenders. Her killers tried to make an example out of Marielle. Their objective was not only to silence this young human rights defender. By killing her, they tried to silence an idea, to kill any resistance.
This was a turning point.
Brazil may have finally reached Colombia or Mexico’s level of political violence. Militias, police and the government is slowly becoming undistinguishable – parts of the same institutionalised crime industry that allows no space for dissident voices.
The murder of Marielle was a message to Brazil’s social movement leaders, fierce politicians, and pretty much everyone else who dares to have a critical voice in the country.
Yet, the killers of Marielle, whoever they may be, failed in their mission to spread fear.
Brazil’s response to Marielle’s killing was not silence or fear, but courage and defiance. Thousands of people took their anger to the streets in dozens of cities all over the country (and also in other Latin American and European countries) in a series of demonstrations demanding justice, respect and a deep change on the Brazilian political landscape.
Marielle’s death started a revolt that resembles the June 2013 demonstrations that shook the country and made the establishment tremble.
Marielle may have been killed, but she was not silenced.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.