On the evening of March 14, 2018, Marielle Franco, city councillor of Rio de Janeiro, was driving back home after a public gathering called “Young Black Women Are Moving the Structures”. Organised by Franco’s cabinet, the meeting was held at the Black Women House [Casa das Pretas] on Invalids Street [rua dos Inválidos] in a central neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro.

“We are the majority of the Brazilian population as black people and as women,” stated the invitation for the gathering. “Still, we are constantly having to fight for changing the structures to have equal rights.” This was the announcement made on Marielle Franco’s Facebook account. The event page on Facebook indicated that approximately one thousand people were interested, although only around 30 women attended the meeting.

After the meeting, around 9:30 pm, Marielle Franco’s car was attacked by criminals travelling in another vehicle. The killers fired 13 shots from an HK MP5 machine gun. Four shots hit Franco directly in her head, showing not only did they know her exact position inside a smoked glass car, but also that they were trained assassins.

Marielle died immediately, as did Anderson Gomes, the driver, who happened to be in the firing line. Fernanda Chaves, Marielle’s press assistant and friend, was the only survivor. Two days after the attack, she had to flee Brazil to protect herself and her family.

It was soon discovered that all the bullets used in the crime were registered as belonging to the Police Office in Brasilia, the national capital, and it became clear that this was a political crime. Suspicions grew of links between the police forces and the criminals.

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Marielle Franco’s funeral on March 15, 2018. The coffin is held by Marcelo Freixo (left) and David Miranda (right), both PSOL militants elected as National Deputies / Source

Marielle Franco was a human rights activist dedicated to denouncing and reporting police violence against poor communities.

Since that tragic night, Brazilian people, especially feminists and black left-wing collectives, are raising the question: “Who killed Marielle, and who ordered her execution?”

The official investigations became a tense and sensitive process, full of divergences and obstructions. Finally, in November 2018 the Federal Police launched an investigation: into the investigation made so far by the Civil Police.

Meanwhile, Brazilians elected the far-rightist Jair Bolsonaro as president, a man who symbolises Franco’s antithesis, and whose son Flavio is associated with the milicia groups suspected of killing her.

Almost a year after the crime, on March 12 a week ago, two men accused of being the shooters were imprisoned: Ronnie Lessa and Elcio Queiroz. They are professional killers and have a 30 year record of delivered crimes.

Both were policemen.

The arrests put the Bolsonaro family in an uncomfortable position. Besides being President Bolsonaro’s close neighbour, the shooter Ronnie Lessa was part of a criminal organisation called the Crime Office [Escritório do Crime], which is actively and directly connected with Flavio Bolsonaro. Flavio had honoured their criminal boss in the Rio de Janeiro Assembly and had employed his daughter and wife in his cabinet.

The other criminal, Elcio Queiroz, is seen smiling in a friendly photo with Jair Bolsonaro himself, posted on Facebook six months after Marielle Franco’s execution.

Brazilian society is now asking even louder: Who gave the order to kill Marielle and why?

Franco’s colleagues in the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) stated that the shooters’ arrest and imprisonment was a delayed and insufficient response. The investigations should continue. For her murder generated a giant wave of commotion, mobilising millions of Brazilians who had never heard of her before the crime.

To better understand why Marielle Franco’s execution produced such fury, it is necessary to know more about who she was.

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Marielle Franco honoured by the Mangueira Samba School, champion of the 2019 Carnival / Source

An intellectual from the favela

Marielle Franco was the perfect example of someone who was a truly contra-hegemonic representative. As a working-class, black and lesbian woman, she was elected with 46,505 votes to act inside a political system configured to be controlled by white, heterosexual and privileged men. She brought in other black women to run her cabinet, some of whom were elected deputies in October 2018.

Born in Favela da Maré, one of the biggest poor communities in Brazil, Franco was also a left-wing activist in PSOL, the most radical left-wing organisation with representatives in the National Parliament.

A brilliant woman, she crossed the invisible borders of a segregated educational system and identified herself as part of the “favela intellectuals crew”. She studied in a popular preparatory course and succeeded in passing a competitive exam to enter the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, an elite institution. After graduating in sociology, Franco also received a master’s degree in public administration from one of Brazil’s best public universities, the Universidade Federal Fluminense.

Her dissertation analysed the limits of the UPP (Unities of Pacification Police), a public security policy created for the favelas by Lula da Silva’s government, which aimed to enhance social control during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games. Franco’s research resulted in a posthumous book entitled UPP: The Reduction of the Favela to Three Letters.

Despite her extraordinary academic achievements, Marielle Franco’s biography was much more like any poor person’s life than any politician’s. At the age of 11 she got her first work experience as a child street hawker. She became a young mother at the age of 19. Two years later, in 1998, Marielle lost a close friend who was killed in a firefight between the police and drug dealers in Maré favela.

The trauma from this event compelled her to take the first steps towards a two-decade long trajectory in the struggle for human rights.

Entry into party politics

A central person in Marielle’s political development was Marcelo Freixo, PSOL’s state deputy who invited her to work at his cabinet in the human rights area in 2006. During 2007 and 2008, Freixo was the main leader of an official investigation into the milicias, organised criminal groups known for their practice of extortion, extreme violence against peripheral populations and electoral fraud.

The Brazilian milicias are generally formed as an intersection between police forces, drug dealers, and organised crime in the dispute for territorial and electoral control. They are commanded from above by powerful right-wing politicians.

Working as Marcelo Freixo’s assistant, Marielle Franco was responsible for the investigation into Rio de Janeiro’s milicias. The result of the investigation was a 282-page report sustained by a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee conducted by Marcelo Freixo.

The report, which reflected Marielle’s backstage efforts, demanded the indictment of 225 politicians, policemen and civilians involved in criminal activities within the milicias structure.

It is almost obvious to say that Freixo and his team faced dangerous enemies by that time. In 2011, he had to flee Brazil under the protection of Amnesty International, having received seven credible death threats in a single month. By that time, he had 23 bodyguards financed by the state to protect him from the milicianos’ killing plans.

In July 2006 he lost his brother, Renato Freixo, an assistant in the Niteroi City Council who was assassinated after dismissing a private security company from the building he managed. Such private security companies are the cradle of the milicias.

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Artistic intervention on the Brazilian flag by the Mangueira Samba School, champion of the 2019 Carnival. It replaces the phrase “Order and Progress” with “Indigenous, Black and Poor”, and changes the original colors (green, yellow, blue) to Mangueira colors (pink, white, green) / Source

The night Marielle Franco was shot, a desolate Freixo stated: “She did not have any idea about it. She had not received any death threat.” Indeed, Franco had never asked for bodyguards or state protection. Unlike what happened with Marcelo, her enemies did not expend time on messages of terror meant to induce fear. They wanted her dead and did it.

A few weeks prior to her death, Marielle joined the parliamentary committee to supervise the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro conducted by the Michel Temer government.

The day before her murder, she tweeted: “Another homicide of a young man who maybe is the Military Police’s responsibility… How many more have to die for this war to end?”

Marielle seed: battle of symbols

The investigation into Marielle Franco’s murder is still inconclusive, but there is evidence suggesting the involvement of the milicia group called Escritorio do Crime [Criminal Office]. As mentioned, Flavio Bolsonaro, President Bolsonaro’s son and recently elected Senator, has close relations with this criminal group, and publicly praised and honoured milicianos more than once when he was a state deputy in Rio.

In his cabinet, Flavio Bolsonaro employed the daughter and wife of Adriano Nóbrega, a chief of the milicia who is presently wanted and considered a fugitive.

The connections between Bolsonaro’s clan and the milicias are explicit. That is why, during the last Carnival, Brazilians all over the country sang old songs called marchinhas updated with new lyrics to denounce it. Crowds in the streets repeated an emblematic song, which goes: “Doctor, I am not mistaken, Bolsonaro is miliciano” [Doutor, eu não me engano, Bolsonaro é miliciano].

The Carnival, indeed, turned to be an allegorical battle for memory and justice in homage of Marielle Franco, and against the Bolsonaro family. The champion of the Rio de Janeiro competition this year, the Mangueira Samba School, won the main prize for a samba-enredo honouring Marielle Franco and other black heroes: “the history that History does not tell”. In São Paulo, the winner paid homage to Aqualtune, a black princess and fighter erased in official white narratives.

The winners of the 2019 Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo undoubtedly marked a political triumph in the terrain of symbols.

Marielle’s prominent presence in this Carnival was a meaningful response to another symbolic act against her memory that was carried out by bolsonaristas last year. In October 2018, Rodrigo Amorim and Daniel Silveira, two deputy candidates elected on the same party ticket as Bolsonaro, posed for a photo after breaking a symbolic street sign with Marielle Franco’s name on it.

They said they were “restoring the order”.

The act was widely condemned by democratic parties and left-wing groups, but it was claimed by the far-right radicals. Rodrigo Amorim framed the fragment of Marielle’s sign to decorate his cabinet in Rio, in a sort of necrophiliac attitude.

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On October 3, 2018, two elected deputies from Bolsonaro’s Party broke a sign made in memory of Marielle Franco / Source

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On October 15, 2018, a street march in honour of Marielle Franco’s memory responds to the broken sign with hundreds of other signs / Source

Marielle Franco became a powerful symbol for black women, communitarian organisations, left-wing parties and human rights activists, able to synthesise an entire political agenda that was used to face internal conflicts. “Marielle seed” [Marielle Semente] was one of the slogans spread wide by her diverse supporters.

She became an example for millions of young Brazilian black women, especially poor girls, stimulated to engage in feminist collectives and human rights struggle.

Three of her assistants, Renata Souza, Mônica Francisco and Dani Monteiro were elected as state deputies of Rio de Janeiro in their first candidacy, gathering 132 thousand votes – three times what Marielle received in 2016 to become a city councillor.

Certainly, this was not the impact intended and expected by her murderers. They thought her “death” was a synonym of the “end”.

Instead, Marielle Franco had multiplied. As she firmly stated in her last speech in Rio de Janeiro City Council, she would not be interrupted.

That was made clear on March 14 last, when the streets were crowded all over Brazil, with hundreds of thousands of people, to honour her memory and fight for justice.

Joana Salém Vasconcelos is a historian, teacher and activist.