Wednesday, July 25th 2018

Who Killed Marielle Franco - Warren Ward

Warren shares about how he found out about the inspiring Brazilian human rights advocate and only recently murdered,Emilio Zapata. She lived and died by the motto" it is better to live on your feet than die on your knees."

Who killed Marielle Franco?


It is better to live on your feet than die on your knees.

Emilio Zapata


The history of Western Philosophy began with Socrates sacrificing his life for the principles he believed in. Sentenced to death for speaking the truth, he died a noble death after drinking hemlock, surrounded by his loyal supporters. Since then, many other brave figures have inspired and humbled us with their willingness to pay the ultimate price to uphold the philosophical principles of truth, freedom, justice or equality. Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Mandela, JFK and Lennon, to name but a few. And there are many others, not so famous, all around the globe, killed for speaking truth to power. Sadly, this year another joined their ranks.

Her name was Marielle Franco.

I first heard about Franco in April 2018. Visiting Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a tourist with my family, I found myself in a bar late one night with an expat who had lived in the country for more than thirty years. (Perhaps I’m being too paranoid, but I don’t want to reveal too much about him for fear of putting him at risk.)

This long-term resident of Brazil told me — or rather shouted at me, to make himself heard over the impossibly good samba band filling the half-empty venue with its infectious rhythms — that in all the years he had lived here, this was the worst he had ever seen Brazil’s political situation. It had got so bad he was planning to leave the country. He asked me if I was aware of the recent clampdowns. I replied that I wasn’t, that I had only arrived a couple of days earlier as a tourist with embarrassingly little knowledge of local politics. He told me that Brazil was a rich country, but the corrupt ruling elite were pocketing most of the country’s wealth, abandoning the country’s poor to never-ending cycles of poverty and crime. Security forces were cracking down to such an extent that people were afraid to go out. The bars were emptier than he had seen them for years. He spoke of corruption, cronyism and oppression with such a heavy heart that I, like him, started to feel depressed and anxious. ’What about the media?’ I asked. ‘Are they asking questions, holding the government to account?’ He shook his head. The media, it seems, were in bed with the government. After we sat there for a while, our shoulders slumped in mutual despair, he said:

‘There was a woman politician who was trying to do something, but they shot her.’

On my way back to my hotel that night, I asked my Uber driver, an affable, if somewhat tense, young man, if he felt safe driving around the city at night. He told me that crime was very bad in Rio, and his dream would be to move with his young family to a safer country like Canada or Australia. I asked him if he avoided collecting passengers if he felt concerned for his safety. He replied, ‘Yes, I have a baby daughter to think of. I have to make sure her father gets home at night.’

When I awoke the next morning, the first thing I recalled were the words of the man I met in the bar: There was a woman politician who was trying to do something, but they shot her.

Over breakfast, I searched the Internet for ‘woman politician shot in Rio’ and came across a string of news entries about Marielle Franco. I learned that she had been shot dead in her car by two unknown assassins on March 14. Her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes was also killed in the attack. According to Wikipedia, two men driving another car ‘fired nine shots at them, four of which struck Franco — three in the head and one in the neck’. Franco’s press officer, who was sitting in the back seat with Franco, ‘survived with injuries’. The attack seems to have been strategically planned, taking place in one of the few locations on her route without CCTV coverage.

Franco was one of the youngest members of Rio’s municipal council. Wikipedia describes her as ‘a black woman and single mother’ who ‘positioned herself as a representative and defender of poor black women and people from the favelas’. A self-avowed feminist and fighter for indigenous rights, she was one of the few politicians willing to speak out against the oppressive policies of the ruling junta.

I also read that Franco, a staunch advocate for gay rights in a conservative Catholic country, had been engaged to marry her partner, Monica Tereza Benício, in September 2019.  It gave me a chill to consider she had been shot only three weeks before our arrival.

Franco was especially critical of the government’s decision, some months earlier, to send the army in to tackle crime in Rio’s notorious favelas. On March 13, she tweeted her outrage that army officers had shot dead an innocent nineteen-year-old boy in one of Rio’s slums as he walked out of his local church. The next day, less than two hours after attending a round-table discussion on how young black women could challenge existing power structures, Franco herself was shot dead at close range.

Wikipedia reports that the ‘bullets that killed Franco [were] from a batch bought by the federal police in Brasilia in 2006’, but the Minister of Public Security Raul Jungmann later issued a statement claiming the bullets had been stolen from a post office.

The ministry subsequently retracted this explanation after the Post Office publicly denied it.

My family and I spent the next day under a warm blue sky lounging on Rio’s famous Ipanema Beach. As my wife and daughters sipped virgin Mojitos, frolicked in the cool blue waters of the Atlantic, and snoozed under the bright Brazilian sun, I couldn’t quell an insistent uneasy feeling. Behind the shimmer of this sparkling paradise — this resort of the rich and glamorous for many decades — I now knew that corruption, murder, cover-ups and secret deals were never far away.

On our last day in Rio, we went on a guided tour in Lapa, one of Rio’s funkier downtown neighbourhoods. There we learnt much about Rio’s history, its proud heritage, its indigenous people, its music, and the annual Carnival. We also leant more about the origins of Rio’s notorious favelas, or slums, scattered throughout the city, usually a few blocks back from the fashionable coastal precincts. These communities first began in the mid-nineteenth century, when legislation was passed liberating Rio’s slaves. These liberated slaves set up shanty-towns on this free land, but were left to languish without any government support, resulting in generation upon generation of increasing disadvantage, squalor, poverty and crime. These suburbs, known as favelas, was where Marielle Franco grew up, and it was for the people in these communities that she died fighting.

Although the tour fascinated me, I found myself even more spellbound by our guide, a young woman with bleached white hair and a pierced nose, who wore a t-shirt featuring a photo of a beautiful smiling black woman. The caption underneath told me immediately who the photo was of. It read:

‘Justiça para Marielle.

Quem matou Marielle e Anderson?’

(Justice for Marielle.

Who killed Marielle and Anderson?)

As we walked through the narrow alleyways of this historic, now rather bohemian, precinct of Rio, I noticed this picture and caption scattered on walls, in railways, and outside shops. The same smiling face. The same insistent question, directed at authorities who, it seemed, had taken no action in response to this outrageous murder of one of Brazil’s few incorruptible politicians.

Towards the end of the tour I noticed, to my amazement, a new street sign in the centre of the busiest part of this precinct, an area where streets had been closed off for markets and bookstalls, and colorful street art shouted out from the surrounding grimy walls. This shiny new street sign read ‘Rua Marielle Franco.’ Incredulous that such a memorial had been erected only 4 weeks after her death, I asked the guide, pointing to this sign, ‘Did the Government do this?’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘the People.’