Despite living in a country in which about 60,000 people die violently each year, the assassination last week of Rio de Janeiro city council member Marielle Franco shocked Brazilians.
It shocked because a young political leader was brutally slain in the centre of the city, along with her driver, Anderson Gomes. Black, gay and from Rio's biggest complex of favelas, Franco represented something new and hopeful in Brazilian politics. She was an articulate socialist from a community long expected to remain on the political margins, who emerged to become the fifth-most voted-for council member in Rio, one of the worst cesspits in Brazilian politics.
Her murder was shocking because of the brutal professionalism with which it was carried out, though by whom is still being investigated.
Early forensic examinations indicate the bullets used were part of a federal police consignment stolen in 2006. Some of these stolen bullets were used in a 2015 massacre of 17 people by police officers in Greater São Paulo.
The judge's comments betray the prejudice many Brazilians still hold against favela residents
Voices on the right quickly moved to smear Franco, insinuating she was murdered in a settling of accounts within Rio’s underworld. One Rio appeals court judge claimed Franco was elected with the support of the Comando Vermelho, the city’s biggest drugs gang, and had failed to deliver on commitments given in return.
Without providing any evidence, the judge continued: “She [Franco], better than anyone ‘far from the favela’ knows how debts are collected by the groups among which she transacted.”
The judge’s comments betray the prejudice many Brazilians still hold against favela residents. It also shows the chronic inability among swathes of the Brazilian right to distinguish between human-rights campaigners who denounce endemic police violence against favela residents, and the drug gangs who operate among them. In their perverted logic, to protest against police excesses is to be the friend of criminals.
It was the death of a friend caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out between police and gang members that set Franco on the path to political office from where she called out police abuses. Just days before her murder, she denounced online the 41st battalion of Rio’s military police – nicknamed the battalion of death – which is the most lethal in the state of Rio.
This may have been enough to get her killed. Brazil’s military police forces – those which patrol in uniform – are as a rule truculent and resentful of any outside control. In 2011, the head of the 7th battalion of Rio’s military police ordered the murder of the judge Patrícia Acioli, who was trying his men over links with death squads.
The violence and corruption of Rio's police is the stuff of dark legend, recorded in word, song and film
But Judge Acioli was assassinated because various police officers feared she would sentence them for unlawful killings. The sort of denunciations that Franco levelled against police are depressingly part of the daily background noise in any Brazilian city. They rarely bother the police because little comes of them. Some officers may even welcome them, reinforcing as they do their image among the large segment of the population which demands an ever harder hand against crime.
This fact has led to speculation that Marielle was instead killed as a message to Brazil's president Michel Temer. Last month he ordered the military to assume responsibility for policing throughout Rio state in response to rising lawlessness and a resurgence of drug gangs in the state capital.
The president's designated interventor, or administrator, General Walter Souza Braga Netto, and his team made all the usual noises about tackling corruption within Rio's police force. One theory is that Marielle's death was a warning to the federal government from those with most to lose from any anti-corruption drive: this is our town and here we call the shots. Mess with us and things will get ugly.
The violence and corruption of Rio’s police is the stuff of dark legend, recorded in word, song and film. Its own past makes it all too easy to imagine this is perhaps what happened last week.
But even if it turns out police had no involvement in Marielle’s assassination and she was not murdered as a message to the federal government, it speaks volumes about the state of policing in Rio that so many think such theories are entirely plausible. And solving the causes of that will be much harder than resolving the murder of Marielle and Anderson.