Five Years Later, the Mystery of Marielle Franco’s Assassination Has Not Been Solved

Brazilian activist and politician Marielle Franco was assassinated five years ago by killers connected to the country’s military and police. Those likely behind her death were part of a reactionary mafia with close ties to the right-wing establishment.

A flag depicting the image of murdered socialist activist and politician Marielle Franco is seen during the second night of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival parade on March 5, 2019. (Carl de Souza / AFP via Getty Images)

For 1,826 days the Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum has posted the same tweet from her account: “Who ordered the killing of Marielle? And why?” Today is the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Marielle Franco, a black, queer, favela-born socialist and human rights activist. On its website, the human rights organization Instituto Marielle Franco displays a counter, logging the days, hours, and minutes that have elapsed since the activist’s murder.

On March 12, 2019, two days before the first anniversary of the assassination of Franco and her driver Andersom Gomes, the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police announced the arrests of Élcio Vieira de Queiroz and Ronnie Lessa. Queiroz, a police officer before he was expelled from the force in 2016 for working private security at an illegal gambling house, drove the Chevy Cobalt that followed Franco four kilometers from the neighborhood of Lapa, where she had gone to attend an event celebrating black women activists. Queiroz followed Franco from the event to the spot of her execution on Rua Joaquim Palhares in Estácio. Lessa, a retired member of the Rio de Janeiro State Military Police Reserves who was only discharged from the corps this year, is accused of firing at the car thirteen times, killing Franco and Gomes. Franco’s assistant Fernanda Chaves was the lone survivor.

The bullets used in the murder cannot be sold to civilians. The investigating Civil Police have confirmed that they belonged to an allotment sold to the Brasília Military Police in 2006. This same allotment is also tied to the São Paulo Military Police’s massacre of seventeen people in the working-class municipalities of Barueri and Osasco of metropolitan São Paulo. Police believe that another Cobalt, also with cloned license plates, was involved in Franco’s assassination.

In four years, very little has come to light beyond these basic facts of the case. Lessa and Queiroz are still awaiting a jury trial for the political killing. Judges have, however, already sentenced Lessa to more than thirteen years for the sale of illegal firearms. In the same operation that led to the pair’s arrests, police found 117 dismantled firearms — one of the largest gun busts in the history of Rio’s Civil Police — in the home of one of Lessa’s friends. Queiroz was sentenced in 2020 to five years for illegally carrying a restricted firearm. He had previously been investigated by Brazilian Federal Police in 2011 for working with Rio’s militias and drug cartels.

Since the morning after the assassination, those knowledgeable of Rio’s political economy of death have suspected that Franco’s assassination was carried out by militia members. These gangs of former and current police officers, soldiers, and even firefighters have, since the end of the military dictatorship, profited from Rio’s chronic public insecurity through protection rackets, arms sales, and monopolies on basic goods like gas and transportation throughout metropolitan Rio. They have become especially prominent in the city’s West Zone and in the municipalities of the Baixada Fluminense.

Militias, as the work of sociologist Jóse Cláudio Souza Alves has documented, also have deep ties to political machines throughout Rio and its surrounding municipalities. They have even successfully run candidates for office. Indeed, there are many credible links with the Bolsonaro family, which has often garnered political support through the rank-and-file members of the military and police, and, by extension, Rio’s violent militias.

Franco began her political career in 2007 as a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade–PSOL). There she served as a human rights aid to then state representative Marcelo Freixo, who led a state-level parliamentary inquiry into militias in 2008. This inquiry resulted in the arrests of over two hundred police officers and public officials. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, militias have only expanded since. According to a study carried out by researchers at the Federal Fluminense University and the violence tracker Fogo Cruzado, the square footage of urban space that militias control has grown 387 percent since 2006, with over four million people in Greater Rio living under their coercive political control.

As Franco herself pointed out in her 2014 master’s thesis, the expansion of militias must be understood in relation to the occupation and militarization of favelas through Pacifying Police Units. In the early 2000s, ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, “lawmakers began to administer the city like a business . . . turning urban space into a good.”

In her thesis Franco wrote that the state

[did] not prioritize military occupation operations to the same degree throughout the city. The best example of this is the West Zone, as an exception. Eliminating militias, especially in these areas of considerable concentration of agents of the state acting illegally and in continual confrontation, did not warrant a massive occupation of the city, with the military occupation of these territories. Instead, in the valorized areas of the city in the center and south and those considered for Pacifying Police Units, you have an occupation of territories with “acoustic barriers” and the National Army, both of which were implemented in Maré.

Favelas — like Maré, where Franco was born and raised — have long been the “laboratories” of public security campaigns that target Brazil’s black and brown working-class residents while turning a blind eye to the web of violence and extraction that exists between the state and the criminal para-state of militias. Reflecting on Franco’s lifework critiquing the violent, racist Brazilian state from within, Gizele Martins (activist, community journalist, fellow resident of Maré, and author of the book Militarização e censura: a luta por liberdade de expressão na favela da Maré) underscored that:

[Franco] was always in front of these issues. I remember in 2018, when all of Rio de Janeiro suffered the military intervention, she was the rapporteur for the city council. It’s not an accident what happened to her. A super critical person, who fought for the right to life of favelas and favelados, of the black population. They tried to silence a significant voice that represented us.

Militias were not a specific target of Franco’s human rights work — she spoke out much more against the violence of the state than the parastate — but her death shows how deeply the two conspire.

Because militias — like the drug trafficking gangs they purport to oppose but often supply and arm — are themselves divided into competing factions vying for territorial control of Rio, political assassinations like that of Franco are usually carried out by more specialized hitmen. Franco’s assassination is believed to have been the work of the Escritório do Crime (the Crime Office). This work is highly profitable, allowing Lessa to live in the same upscale condominium property in the nouveau-riche West Zone neighborhood of Barra de Tijuca that Bolsonaro himself calls home. But the connections go deeper. The former head of the Escritório do Crime was Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, who was killed in a shoot-out with police in Bahia while hiding from the authorities at the home of a councilperson affiliated with Bolsonaro’s former political party.

In fact, the Bolsonaro family has close ties to da Nóbrega. In 2005 as a congressman, Bolsonaro gave a speech to the Chamber of Deputies criticizing da Nóbrega’s arrest in relation to the death of a parking attendant. That same year, Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flavio, used his position as a state senator to reward da Nóbrega one of the state of Rio’s highest honors, the Tiradentes Medal, while he was in jail. Flavio also employed da Nóbrega’s wife and mother as part of his congressional staff. Jair’s longtime friend, Fabricio Queiroz (no relation to Élcio) also worked as an aid for Flavio and hid in the militia-controlled favela of Rio de Pedras when he was evading arrest for money laundering.

Through his presidency, Boslonaro has nationalized the violent, gangster ideology of the militias. Lula’s presidency will have to contend with an extremely right-wing congress and with Bolsonarista governors like Rio’s own Claúdio Castro.

With Bolsonaro out of the presidency, there is some hope that progress will be made in Franco’s case. Lula’s minister of justice announced that Federal Police have begun their own investigation of the assassination. Previously, Franco’s family had opposed federalizing the case, citing then justice minister Sergio Moro’s indifference to the investigation. The state level investigation has been mired by false information and police interference. The lack of progress is, sadly, not very surprising. “We have a state,” explains Martins,

that kills us, that violates us, that does not give us the right to housing, that commits genocide against the black and indigenous populations, and that continues its historic impunity. So the fact that the assassination of Marielle does not have an answer is yet another representation of what we have historically suffered.

Time has done little to pierce through the depraved criminal-political network that enabled, carried out, and continues to cover up Franco’s assassination. A whole generation of political activists, especially black cis and trans women inspired by her example and disgusted by the injustice of her murder (commonly known as “Marielle’s seeds”), have sprung up in the years that have passed since Franco’s assassination.

Powerfully yet bittersweetly, Franco’s own sister, Anielle, has also entered the political arena. On January 11, in a historic joint inauguration with indigenous activist Sônia Guajajara (the minister of indigenous peoples), she became the minister of racial equality. Just as Marielle had done in an article written in 2017, in her inauguration speech, Anielle pointed to former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment as the beginning of Brazil’s recent authoritarian turn to a “policy of death.”

Franco and Guajajara’s joint inauguration also served as a repudiation of the January 8 attacks on the capital by Bolsonaro supporters: “The same project that permitted the destruction of this palace’s windows is the project that kills, every day, people like waste picker Dierson Gomes da Silva, from City of God, in Rio de Janeiro.” Invoking her sister and honoring their shared dreams for a better Brazil, Minister Franco put forth a new project for Brazil under Lula’s government:

We are here because we have a new national project: a project for a country where a black woman can access and participate in different decision-making positions of society, without being interrupted, violated or having her life torn away with five shots to the head. . . .

We have a national plan and hope to be able to count on you for its construction. And this is why I make this request to the entire Brazilian population: walk with us.

Whether such a nation can be constructed will depend on the strength of Brazil’s multiracial left and its ability to purge the state of authoritarianism.