Marielle Franco’s killers were not out to rid themselves of a 38-year-old member of Rio City Council who dedicated her days to pressing political causes. They wanted to silence an idea.
Franco was killed in a nighttime ambush with no chance to react. It’s the same cowardly way that people are killed in impoverished favelas across Rio de Janeiro and the rest of Brazil — places where the mail isn’t delivered, the electricity is spotty, the water is polluted, and schools close when gunfire begins. In these parts of town, residents’ main point of contact with the government are armored personnel carriers — known as a “Big Skull” — who enter their neighborhood with a license to kill.
In her first campaign for public office in 2016, Franco ran from a scrappy, progressive political party, and still won the fifth-highest vote total out of her colleagues on Rio de Janeiro’s City Council. A black, lesbian single mother, born and raised in a favela, Franco was a rare face of representation in an overwhelming white and male political landscape. And with two degrees from one of Brazil’s most elite universities and over a decade of experience in politics, she was an undeniably powerful charismatic force in the growing movement to confront the epidemic of violence perpetrated or perpetuated by the state. Last year, Rio saw only slightly fewer killings by police than in the entire United States, which is itself a dramatic outlier.
“It was a message,” came the refrain from mourners. But what were Franco’s killers trying to say? And to whom?
Stunned mourners filled the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro last Thursday to grieve and protest Franco’s death. “It was a message,” the oft-heard refrain came from the crowd. But what were Franco’s killers trying to say? And to whom? The killers seemed to shout in a whisper: “Don’t you dare mess with the systems around you.”
It is too early to know whether Franco’s murderers took her life in retaliation for her activism against police violence. A few scant facts have emerged in the days since her assassination suggesting that perhaps Franco’s murder shares similarities with the killings she regularly denounced. Police investigators traced bullet casings found at the crime scene to a purchase made by the Federal Police.