By Tracy Lee
Brazilian activists are outraged over the assassination of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco, an outspoken critic against police corruption. She and her driver were gunned down by unknown attackers on Wednesday night in downtown Rio.
Franco, who also headed the city assembly’s Women’s Commission, had been returning from a black women’s empowerment event as shots were fired. Brazilian authorities said a full investigation would take place.
A member of the left-leaning Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSOL), Franco, 38, was a widely known advocate whose rise surprised many. She won the fifth-highest vote count among city council members in 2016 and became known as a voice for Rio’s marginalized communities.
Franco grew up in Maré—a complex of 16 favela communities and one of Rio’s largest slums—and has been an outspoken advocate for favela residents denouncing police aggression.
A day before she died, Franco credited another murder to the police, asking, “How many others will have to die for this war to end?” in one of her last tweets.
Over the weekend, Franco called for “no more killing of young men” after the deaths of two young men in the local Acari favela. Activists believe Franco’s death was a targeted attack.
“We are all still in shock,” Luciana Martins, a Rio activist and friend of Franco’s, told Newsweek. “It was an execution. Marielle took nine shots, five shots on the head. Who would do something so brutal? Someone or some group that had been denounced by her?”
Martins, a history teacher and feminist, said she was devastated and called Franco’s death a profound blow to human and women’s rights. “But these shots will not shut them; we will fight even more for equality and justice. For me, for Marielle, for all of us,” she said.
Martins said her last conversation with Franco took place on the messaging service WhatsApp on February 5. Franco repeated a phrase that she always said: “We are together.”
Amnesty International has called Franco’s death a “targeted assassination” and called for a full investigation.
“The loss of Marielle means pain, suffering. But also she will continue propelling us in the fight for rights, justice and dignity, particularly for women and youth from the favelas and outskirts,” Jurema Werneck, Amnesty International’s Brazil director, said in a statement to Newsweek.
Amnesty’s latest annual report shows that budget reductions and a lack of political will have left many of Brazil’s human rights defenders in peril and at a higher risk from attacks. The report also underscored police interventions in favelas and “marginalized areas [that] often resulted in intensive shoot-outs and deaths.”
Official figures show that on-duty police officers in Rio de Janeiro state killed 1,035 individuals between January and November 2017. Amnesty also singled out the homicide rate for young black males.
Deaths at the hands of Brazil’s police have brought scrutiny in the past, as well as a review of its human rights policies by the United Nations.
Rio de Janeiro has experienced a surge in violence that reached a breaking point during the famed Carnival last month. An emergency decree was put into place to combat rising crime as the military took over Rio’s security.
Two weeks ago, Franco was named a rapporteur in a special commission in Rio, which was enacted by the city council to monitor the current military intervention in the city.
Brazilian President Michel Temer called Franco’s death “an act of extreme cowardice” and has offered the help of federal police to investigate.
“Marielle showed the strength, importance and need for women, black and favela empowerment,” 35-year-old Rio teacher Marcus Menezes, who describes himself with the local term militante and is a PSOL activist, told Newsweek.
Menezes, who met Franco in 2012 during municipal elections, detailed how she fought against prejudices in Brazil while denouncing systemic abuse. He called Franco a fighter and defender of human rights, adding that, even in death, she lives through the social movements.
Activists in Rio and other Brazilian cities held a series of protests throughout Thursday to pay tribute to Franco’s work and mourn her loss. PSOL plans to hold a march on Friday.
“In the women’s fight, we are shattered,” Lucia Cabral, who worked with Franco on human rights issues, told Newsweek from a protest in Rio’s city center.
Just last week, Cabral said, she was with Franco at a meeting on the Rio military intervention. Cabral said she is in shock and never imagined that this could happen. “This is the biggest violation for those who fight.”
She added that nothing will stifle activist voices and said those at the protest vow to keep fighting.