Brazilian police have arrested suspected masterminds behind the murder of a councilwoman-turned-icon
Brazilian police have arrested suspected masterminds behind the murder of a councilwoman-turned-icon

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s federal police on Sunday arrested the men suspected of ordering the 2018 killing of a Rio de Janeiro city councilman, a long-awaited step after years of public demands for justice.

The brutal drive-by shooting death of Mariel Franco, a 38-year-old black, bisexual city councilor in Rio de Janeiro, deeply shook Brazil and reverberated around the world.

Two federal police sources familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press that congressman Chiquinho Brazao and his brother, Domingos Brazao, a member of the Rio state audit of accounts, were detained on suspicion of ordering the assassination against Franco. Both have alleged ties to criminal groups known as militias, which illegally charge residents for various services, including protection.

The sources did not specify what their alleged motive was.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s Justice Minister Ricardo Lewandowski said the country’s Supreme Court had approved a plea deal for the gunman, who was arrested along with the driver in 2019.

The investigation into Franco’s assassination has been stymied for years. The Rio State Civil Police could not solve the case after the arrest and indictment of the shooter and the driver. The lead detectives were changed four times until February 2023, when federal authorities took over.

The driver confessed to the double murder of Franco and her driver in 2023. The shooter, disgraced ex-cop Ronnie Lessa, signed a deal with authorities in January and his confession led to Sunday’s arrests.

Rivaldo Barbosa, Rio’s police chief at the time of the murder, has also been arrested for allegedly obstructing the investigation, the sources said.

Franco, the council member, worked as an assistant to then-state lawmaker Marcelo Freixo in 2008 while he chaired a special commission investigating militias in Rio’s state assembly. Freixo’s final report indicted 226 suspected militia members and politicians and government officials, including Domingos Brazão. While Brazao was mentioned in the report, he was not charged.

Political violence is not uncommon in Rio, and such killings are often linked to territorial and political disputes. But they usually go unsolved and never produce the same level of unease as Mariel’s death. She was a rising political star who made a name for herself by exposing police abuses and violence against residents of working-class neighborhoods known as favelas.

Known everywhere by her little name, Mariel herself grew up in a favela, the Mara neighborhood near Rio’s international airport. She becomes a human rights activist there after a friend of hers is killed by a stray bullet in a shootout between police and drug traffickers. She worked for Freixo investigating organized crime, then won a seat on Rio’s city council in 2016. She continued to receive and share complaints about police violence until days before she was killed.

She stood out as one of the only black women on the council, and although her assertiveness and plain presence irritated some, she remained defiant.

“Why did they choose Mariel? No doubt because she’s a black woman they were sure they’d get away with it,” Freichault said on X, formerly Twitter. He wrote that crowds gathered the day after her murder to mourn her and those who killed her failed to see “the greatness of what Mariel represented”.

On the evening of March 14, 2018, she was leaving an event to empower young black women when a car pulled up next to hers and opened fire. Mariel and her driver, Anderson Gomez, were killed at the scene.

The brutality of the assassination and the political hope it embodied made her a symbol of leftist resistance in Brazil and abroad: people organized mass protests to channel their outrage; her silhouette was painted on walls in Brazil and printed on T-shirts; her name appears on a street sign in front of Rio’s city council; a public garden in Paris is named after her; and her sister Aniel Franco was appointed Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality.

Aniel said Sunday on social media that the arrests were an emotional moment and that they gave an answer “to the favela residents who voted for Mariel, to the women who put their bodies at the service of politics.”

The Brazao brothers’ political clan is linked to an area of ​​the city historically dominated by militias – groups originally made up mainly of ex-policemen and off-duty officers who wanted to fight lawlessness in their neighborhoods with armed force. They started extorting shop owners and charging for services like internet, cooking gas and cable TV. More recently, they have expanded their illegal business into land grabbing and real estate development.

Militias now control more than half of the territory in the Rio metro area, according to a 2022 study by Fluminense Federal University and the Fogo Cruzado Institute.


Sá Pessoa reported from Sao Paulo. AP reporters Eleanor Hughes and Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Rio and Sao Paulo, respectively.

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