Rio city council member Marielle Franco was murdered on March 14, 2018, returning from an event focused on empowering young black women. Her death galvanized many in Latin America's largest nation, where more than 50 percent identify as black or mixed-race, and yet most politicians are white men.

(AP Photo/Ellis Rua)

The Life and Death of a Dangerous Woman

Marielle Franco advocated for the poor and downtrodden in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Why were her beliefs so controversial that she was murdered?

Story by Zoe Sullivan

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On March 14, 2018, Rio de Janeiro​ city council member Marielle Franco was assassinated after she left a meeting of black women discussing how to create systemic change in an oppressive political environment. Police reported that two men in a car fired multiple shots into the vehicle in which Marielle was riding, killing both her and her driver, Anderson Gomes. She was 38 years old.

Franco was black, bisexual, and a single mother. She herself was a product of Rio’s informal communities, known as favelas, home to roughly a quarter of Rio´s population. Her background and subsequent activism helped give her a deep socio-economic understanding of policing and criminal justice issues in Rio. She was using her mandate as member of the Rio City Council to propose policies that would shift the landscape for black, low-income communities and especially for women. Transforming an oppressive system was what Marielle lived for.

Marielle’s story fits into a bigger picture, one embedded in the legacy of slavery. In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. It imported some five million slaves, roughly ten times the number brought to the US. Yet after the end of slavery, the basic social structure of an elite group of wealthy landowners and working-class masses remained intact, along with the country’s unequal land distribution. This led to the development of Informal communities on the edges of urban areas, known as favelas, primarily occupied by low-income, working-class people of color.

Marielle’s positions and her identity as a black woman from a favela made her a symbol of hope and resistance for the communities she defended. She won election to her first term in 2016 with the fifth-highest vote count in the city. “All of her projects were developed starting from the grassroots, with the people who would be affected by these policies.” Luciana Boiteux told Next City. “She had an intersectional perspective in which gender, race and class are connected and can’t be disentangled.” Boiteux, a professor of criminal law and criminology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, is, like Marielle, a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a left-wing party born in 2003 when members of President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva’s (Lula) Workers’ Party (PT) were expelled for refusing to vote for changes to Brazil’s pension system. Marielle helped organize PSOL’s first assembly in Rio’s Maré favela, her home, in 2007.

Marielle’s political positions, however, also made her enemies. A few days before her assassination, Franco was selected as one of the leaders of a council committee monitoring the federal government’s intervention in Rio. In this intervention, the military are acting as a police force and have requested that soldiers not be subject to civil law but rather to a military tribunal. Progressives fear troops will be permitted to act with impunity, returning to the practices of a not-so-distant dictatorship. Data from Rio’s Institute of Public Security reports that 100 people were killed in the month of February “as a result of opposition to police intervention.” This figure doesn’t disaggregate the federal intervention from local police interventions.

Marielle spoke out strongly against these deaths, calling the intervention and cuts to social services a threat to democracy. “The police state is aimed at the repression and control of the poor,” she wrote, later tweeting, “How many more need to die for this war to end?”

Birth of an Activist

Marielle grew up in Maré, a favela on the northern side of Rio near the international airport. She began working at age 11 to pay for her education. At age 19, Marielle gave birth to her daughter, Luyara, and also began studying in her community for university entrance exams. It was the death of a girlfriend in a shootout between police and drug traffickers that pushed Marielle into activism.

In 2008, Marielle worked closely on an investigation into local militias with Marcelo Freixo, PSOL´s state assembly member. Rio´s militias often include former police officers, firefighters, civil police, and members of the armed forces. The Intercept Brasil has reported that militias now control the city, with 65% of the calls reporting possible drug trafficking, extortion, or other crimes involving militias. The current Mayor has denied he has ties to militia groups.

A child flies a kite in the Rio de Janeiro's Maré favela, one of the many densely populated informal settlements that ring the outskirts of the city. Marielle Franco grew up in Maré, and her experience there shaped her commitment to transform an oppressive system. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo) 

Alberto Aleixo is one of the founders of Redes da Maré, a nonprofit that aims to improve the quality of life and ensure the rights of Maré’s residents. “In reality [the militias] are a criminal group in the same way traffickers are,” Aleixo says. “They oppress the community. They charge fees to carry out so-called ‘security’.”

Militias are also emerging as an important line of investigation into Marielle’s assassination. The bullets used in her ambush came from the same lot of Federal Police bullets purchased in 2006 and traced to a series of shootings in São Paulo in 2015 that sent two police officers and a municipal guard to prison. The bloodshed continues. On April 8, 2018, Carlos Alexandre Pereira Maria, an assistant to sitting Rio City Council member Marcello Siciliano, was murdered. The Intercept Brasil reports that Pereira’s fingerprints and those of a military police officer, Anderson Claudio da Silva, are being compared with the partial fingerprints found on bullets at the scene of Marielle’s murder. Da Silva himself was killed a day later, on April 9. In the days before these murders, The Intercept Brasil reported that police had identified the cellphone number of the driver of the assassin’s car and were investigating whether any contact was made with members of the Rio City Council on the day of Marielle’s murder.

In addition, The Intercept Brasil has reported that a former City Council and militia member, Cristiano Girão Matias, was in the Rio City Council building days before Marielle was killed. Girão was one of 226 people investigated during the inquiries into militias that Marielle worked on with Marcelo Freixo in 2008. Girão’s mandate was terminated in 2010, The Intercept reports, for missing too many days of the legislative session. At the time, he had spent nearly a year in jail accused of running a local militia. After this, according to the Intercept, “there is no more news of him appearing in the Rio legislature.”

A Paradigm Shift

The context in which Marielle fought was not just for better services and opportunities for marginalized communities, but for a paradigm shift. Marielle questioned the economic framework for policy decisions as well as the symbolic violence done to low-income communities of color.

Hours before she was assassinated, Marielle sent an article to the Jornal do Brasil outlining her position on the military’s presence in Rio. She described how a series of measures undermining workers’ rights, the public health and education systems and the public pension system “aligned with interests that serve international capital and [certain] business sectors and fling a contingent of citizens into a spiral of poverty.” Some speculate that deploying the military was simply a way for the president to distract from his failure to gut the country’s pension system.

Whatever was behind it, Marielle pointed out that since the start of the intervention black women have been disproportionately represented among those victims killed. “The deaths have a color, social class, and territory,” she wrote in the Jornal do Brasil op-ed. “This frightening statistic demonstrates that even on the eve of marking a month since the beginning of the intervention, the oft-spoken-of sensation of security doesn’t happen through political-media discourse. Certainly, public safety isn’t made with arms, but with public policies in every area. In health, education, culture, and the creation of jobs and income.”

Police Pacification As Gateway to Gentrification

In the years leading up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, roughly 77,000 people were evicted from their homes in Rio, according to the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics Dossier. Marielle described the ways that the police pacification program, launched as part of the preparation for these big events, dismantled economic security for many in the favelas while benefiting real estate speculators in her 2014 master’s thesis: “UPP: The Reduction of the Favela to Three Letters—An Analysis of Rio de Janeiro State’s Public Safety Policy.” It mentions, for example, a 400% increase in real estate values in areas surrounding favelas with pacification units (UPPs). The public safety policy “unfolds by economically removing the population with less purchasing power, gradually removing it from the city,” she wrote. Some small businesses, for example, which had been the lifeblood of the community, closed because they couldn’t afford the taxes that came with entering the formal economy. Yet critics point to the regressive structure of Brazil´s tax system as disproportionately burdening low-income people.

Marielle brought this analysis to bear on the reality surrounding her, combining a vision for producing positive change with an incisive economic critique. With city neighborhoods seen as commodities, “pacification” enabled the implementation of land-titling and urbanization projects, she wrote, bringing with them “the virtual transformation of favelas through gentrification processes, especially those in the wealthier parts of the city.”

These issues are not unique to Brazil. Residents of Brooklyn displaced for the Atlantic Yards and Barclay’s Center project may recognize similarities. As would residents of New Orleans’ public housing projects that were torn down after Hurricane Katrina to enable the construction of and profit from new housing.

“Currently, we see the inclusion of favela communities in the consumer market. So, this pacification process brings opportunities for companies in these communities,” says Boiteux. “What we criticize, and what Marielle was keenly aware of, is that little has been done in terms of social policies to actually reduce inequality. It’s a state that maximizes militarization but minimizes services, social policies.”

Marielle connected the dots between these economic interests and the public safety policies that support them. In her master’s thesis, she describes the UPPs as a “public policy aimed at ensuring public safety—not for favela residents. Instead [the UPPs are] primarily an instrument that creates a feeling of safety for future mega-events and big investments.”

The Price of Community Policing

Not everyone in Marielle’s community of Maré shared this view when the police pacification program began. “In the beginning we understood that the occupation, the state taking back the sovereignty over these areas dominated by trafficking rings, was a positive in this policy,” says Alberto Aleixo. “What the state and the governor at the time, Sergio Cabral, offered was that this would be a process of closing the gap between the police and the community. So, for us, this was a big plus: leaving behind this situation where the community is attacked by police operations for a perspective where we would have policing in the same way as other parts of the city where there are police officers who can guarantee your safety.”

This is not what happened. Research produced by Redes da Maré reports that the community experienced 41 police operations in 2017. That is one approximately every nine days. During 35 of these operations, 5,000 children were unable to attend school. That accounts for 17% of the academic year. Forty-two people were killed during armed conflicts, and 57 were injured. Shootouts also closed down the community’s health clinics for 45 days over the course of the year.

Complicating matters further, research by the Center for Studies on Security and Citizenship (CESEC) found that a large number of officers were unhappy working in the UPPs. In 2014, less than half (41%) of the officers surveyed had a positive opinion of the UPPs. Nearly two-thirds believed that residents had negative feelings about the UPP police officers.

In the time since the World Cup and the Olympics ended, the security situation has spiraled downwards. The year 2016 was the deadliest in Brazil´s history, according to the Brazilian Annual Report on Public Safety. More than 61,000 people died violent deaths. In 2017, 6,731 people died violent deaths in Rio de Janeiro state alone. Meanwhile, these deaths disproportionately affect certain communities. The Atlas of Violence reported that 71% of Brazil’s 2017 homicide victims were black men while the homicide rate among black women grew 22% between 2005 and 2015.

Criminalizing the Poor

The favelas’ population, says Aleixo, is seen as the enemy of the armed forces. The Redes report argues that because favelas are stigmatized as violent communities, “public policies [are developed] based on a stereotyped and discriminatory view of these areas, which legitimizes extremely violent actions justified by controlling illegal drug sales.”

Here again, comparisons to U.S. criminal justice policies abound, whether through stop and frisk policies, mandatory minimum sentences and mass incarceration, or the use of flashbang grenades.

Making matters worse, Aleixo says, is that police operations in Maré never seem to target the militias operating in the area, only the drug trafficking networks. “Even when there are these federal troop operations that are called GLO, Guarantee Law of Order, there’s almost no intervention in these spaces,” he says. “I see that as the state essentially conniving with this kind of crime. The militias are seen as the lesser evil.”

“For me, the militias are worse than the traffickers’ domination because the militias include agents of the state,” Aleixo says. “This makes it even more serious because it mixes crime with people who should be fighting crime. They’re public employees who should be ensuring people’s safety and they’re working against that.”

Yet Marielle wasn’t about being against the police, Aleixo says. “On the contrary. She was really close to the families of police officers who were victims of this terrible violence as well,” he says. “She had the perspective of dialoguing [with police], of approaching security discussions to preserve life.”

Robson Rodrigues da Silva, a former colonel in Rio de Janeiro’s military police who also helped design the rollout of the UPPs across the city, also acknowledges Marielle’s analysis. “The same critiques that she had—that were very well founded—those [critiques] are justified by something much larger that is happening around the world in poorer communities.” This, he says, is the result of neo-liberal policies that criminalize the poor.

“Any place in the world, whether it’s here, in the U.S., in Asia, if it’s part of a democratic system, [the police] need legitimacy and trust,” Rodrigues explained. “In this situation of political slash-and-burn that’s going on, you tend towards the opposite, towards intolerance, the ever-increasing criminalization of poverty, a lack of patience to look at the complexity of the problem. And these problems can’t be reduced simply to a question of policing. The police are a symptom. It’s a much broader, much more general problem.”

Rodrigues also acknowledged Marielle’s take that the goal of the pacification process was to “have public safety under control so that investments could come.” But, he says, some of those business interests were criminal.

“I’m not talking about small-time crime, of selling drugs in the favela. I’m talking about much more sophisticated crimes that [are coming to light] now with the Car Wash operation.”

“I Am Because We Are”

Marielle embodied the identities of the communities she represented. She brought a laser-like focus of the relationship between criminal justice policy and the marginalization of low-income communities of color to her role as City Council member when she won her seat in 2016. “I Am Because We Are” was her slogan.

“Marielle’s campaign was lovely because she brought and represented women’s politics, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro,” says Boiteux. “These movements have always had difficulty in moving their issues forward because women are underrepresented in politics here in Brazil.”

As the President of the Council’s Women’s Defense Commission, Marielle proposed a number of bills that demonstrated her commitment to women’s issues and childcare. The common-sense vision behind one such bill, known as the “Owl Space/Nighttime Childcare Space,” acknowledges the fact that many low-income women work or study in the evening, when they don’t have someone they can leave their children with or can’t afford childcare. The proposal calls for existing daycare and educational facilities to be opened between 5 and 11pm. Caregivers would be fully trained and licensed professionals who have taken civil service exams but not yet been called upon to fill a position.

In the wake of Franco's murder, thousands protested the federal government's intervention in Rio de Janeiro, in which the military act as a police force, with heavy presence in the favelas. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Boiteux also underlined the struggle that Marielle and other women in the PSOL party have undertaken to decriminalize abortion in Brazil. The 2016 Brazilian National Abortion Survey reports that 1 in 5 Brazilian women has had at least one abortion by the age of 40 and that women of all races, classes and educational levels abort. As it stands today, abortion in Brazil is only legal in cases of rape, anencephaly, and risk to the mother´s life. Last year, members of Brazil´s Congress introduced legislation that, by defining life as beginning at conception, would prohibit abortion under any circumstances.

Marielle’s first bill, introduced shortly after being sworn in, was the law of legal abortion. “In Brazil, abortion isn’t just criminalized,” says Boiteux. “Even for abortions that are allowed, such as in the case of rape, women aren’t able to get abortion services in public clinics. It’s a taboo.”

As Marielle pointed out on her web page, 94% of the women seeking legal abortions do so as a result of a rape, and clandestine abortions are the fifth most common reason for maternal mortality in Brazil. Many women don’t know that they have the right to request an abortion. And, even when they do, many health professionals refuse to provide the services. Further, when abortion services are provided, there are often reports of abuse and obstetric violence. Marielle’s legislation aims to humanize the care women receive when making this decision.

Another of Marielle’s proposals tied to maternal health was approved by the council in 2017. The Birth Center bill recognizes the issue of obstetric violence, which involves demeaning treatment of women and the stripping of their bodily autonomy during pregnancy and labor. Examples include pushing C-sections or other unwanted interventions. The legislation increases the number of birth centers where women with low-risk pregnancies can give birth. Doulas will be available to assist with natural births, Boiteux says, although they’re considered taboo in other parts of the health system. A Huffington Post article published after the bill’s approval said the birth centers “would provide holistic healthcare” that would include nursing support and other health and educational activities to support new mothers and their children.

Marielle also proposed legislation addressing violence against women and sexual harassment — for example, by collecting data about violence against women in the city of Rio and penalizing sexual harassment on public transportation.

Empower Women, Occupy Everything

In the wake of her assassination, Marielle’s master´s thesis advisor, Joana D´Arc Fernandes Ferraz, continues to speak of her in the present tense. Marielle isn’t a martyr, Ferraz says, she’s a fighter.

“She shouldn’t be thought of as a martyr in this fight. It would be the last thing she would want,” says Ferraz. “She had a cabinet made up of social movements, of collectives. She also didn’t use her power the way power would want her to—speaking for people.” The implication is that Marielle used her voice as an equal, a peer, not as a leader. “She [was] there, participating in activities; going everywhere; defending really important causes here in Brazil.”

The night she died, Marielle participated in a group discussion on black women running for office and challenging an oppressive system. For Boiteux, a PSOL colleague, Marielle’s legacy of encouraging other women, black women, to enter politics is essential to dealing with her loss.

“She had a campaign, women in politics. Because she knew that she alone [had limited power],” says Boiteaux. “She knew the importance of women, black women occupying political spaces.” No surprise, then, that Marielle closed out that last meeting by saying: “Let’s go out and occupy everything.”

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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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