On March 14th, Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco, and her driver Anderson Gomes were shot at point blank range in downtown Rio de Janeiro. The black, lesbian, and favela-born politician shouted loudly about police brutality in the famous Samba city, specifically focusing on violence against those living on the margins of society, in Rio’s innumerous favela communities.
But, a key question remains unanswered; who ordered the killing? Could it have been a colleague of hers, from within the council, who wanted to not only quiet her voice, but also to send a strong message to others who might follow in her path? Nearly two months later, authorities seem no closer to answering these questions.
Even with a military intervention installed in Rio since late February, it’s clear that the good guys are not in charge here. When a local drugs chief was shot dead by police recently, his gang members ordered that all commerce shut in the wealthy neighbourhoods of Catete and Glória. No-one disobeys when the gangsters make orders like this, army or no army.
Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful picture postcard city, but with an ugly underbelly. Differences between the rich and poor here are staggeringly blatant. Shoppers leaving the plush Leblon shopping centre, for example, with their Gucchi, and Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags, need only round the corner to be inside one of Rio’s many favela communities.
Favelas can be found in all Brazilian cities, and suffer from decades of neglect from the powers that be. These informal squatter communities began to spring up after the emancipation of slavery in Brazil in 1888, making it the last country in the world to liberate slaves.
From the outset, civil society didn’t really care what these poor people did inside their communities. As long as they arrive on time to work every day, who cares? Over time, vigilante groups that emerged to combat domestic violence in favelas, began to dip into drugs and weapons trades. Ironically, the locking up of political dissidents during Brazil’s military dictatorship, with small time criminals, led to the formation of the drugs cartels as we know them today, as they learned fundamentals of economics and philosophy while locked up together in the island jail on Ilha Grande.
Up to 42% of the remaining favelas are ruled by militia gangs, a motley crew of armed citizens that includes off-duty firemen, police and prison staff. They claim to take back control in communities that were once run by drugs gangs. Both residents and business owners of areas under their control are forced to pay protection money, and additional taxes on barrels of gas, cable TV, public transport etc. They even offer votes to local politicians in areas they control, in exchange for payment, and a carte blanche in that area.
Not even two weeks after Marielle’s assassination came the news that 5 boys, aged 16 – 20, had been shot dead, paramilitary style in Maricá, in Rio state. Investigators say the perpetrators may have thought they were up to no good, may have not wanted to see groups of teenager hanging around, or simply, wanted to impose fear into the local community.
When journalists from the local newspaper O Dia moved undercover into a favela to cover the story of militia groups in Rio, ten years ago, they were kidnapped and tortured for seven hours. The journalists don’t dare to return to Rio since, fearing for their safety.
The public investigation that followed resulted in indictments for 226 people, including several politicians, and police officers. The presiding judge in the tribunal later disclosed deaths threats she had received, and was ultimately killed hours outside her home in Niteroi, just hours after she ordered the imprisonment of two police officers in nearby Sao Gonçalo.
One probably unforeseen result of Marielle’s death is that it has led to a resurgence of debate on the social issues she championed, and a bringing together of disparate social activists, eager that her death not be in vain. On May 2nd, Rio city council opened an extraordinary session to debate seven bills that Marielle had been fighting for before her death; all in defense of those on low income, women, and the local black and LGBT communities.