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Marielle Franco, Activist Against Brazil's Police Brutality, Assassinated in Rio

The Brazilian councilwoman—recognized for her advocacy against police brutality, sexual violence, and racial inequality, and for championing women’s and LGBTQ rights—was shot dead on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro.
Meredith Balkus
translated by Meredith Balkus
Brooklyn, US
Photo courtesy of PSOL

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.

Marielle Franco was a mother; a black woman who identified with the LGBT community and came from the Complexo da Maré, a series of favelas in northern Rio de Janeiro plagued by organized crime and military disputes; a sociologist; and a politician. In 2016, she was elected to Rio’s city council to represent the country’s Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), receiving enough votes to win the fifth highest seat of the 51 that were up for reelection that year. At 38-years-old, Franco was viewed as a breath of fresh air that would bring change to the toxic political situation Brazil: She was an outspoken advocate against police brutality in the favelas, institutionalized racism, and gender inequality.


Franco was shot dead in her car after leaving a political event in downtown Rio on the evening of Wednesday, March 14, shocking Brazil and the international community.

Mourners gathered in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, March 15, the day after the assassination of Marielle Franco. Photo by Matias Maxx

On her official social media pages, Franco described herself as “Marielle Franco, candidate for city council in Rio de Janeiro and mother of Luyara.” Becoming a mother at age 19 put strain on her academic pursuits, but it was the birth of Luyara (now 17 years old), that gave Franco the framework for her studies even as she fought to provide for her daughter. The young mother attended the preparatory Community School of the Maré, graduated with a degree in Social Sciences from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), and received her Master’s in Public Administration at the Federal Fluminese University (UFF). In addition to having worked as a kindergarten teacher in the Maré, Franco was a respected teacher and researcher in the academic world. Her master’s dissertation, titled “UPP: a redução da favela a três letras” (“UPP: The Decline of the Favela in Three Letters”) examined the role of UPPs, Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (or “Pacifying Police Units,” in English), a law enforcement program whose goal was to retake control of the city’s favelas that were controlled by drug-dealing gangs.

Franco’s political activism and significant role as a human rights activist started in 2005, when a close friend of hers was killed by a bullet during a shootout between police and drug traffickers in the Maré. Her entry into politics was sponsored by Marcelo Freixo, a state representative for PSOL who asked Franco to work with him as a congressional consultant. She worked alongside Freixo for ten years and helped coordinate the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and Citizenship on the Legislative Assembly of Rio de Janeiro (ALERJ) before deciding to run for city council In 2016.


The citizens of Rio de Janeiro congregated outside the city's municipal chambers to mourn Marielle Franco's death. Photo by Matias Maxx

Franco’s parliamentary career attracted widespread public attention. She fought for issues like extending business hours for child day-care centers so that mothers could go back to work, and had recently been assigned to lead the city council’s committee to oversee military intervention in the city. Just days before her death, she made a formal complaint against the police officers of the 41st BPM (Military Police Battalion) of Acari, a neighborhood in northern Rio, after they threatened the area’s residents and were suspected of shooting two young men and dumping their bodies in an open sewer. It was the beginning of Franco’s tenure as inspector of the federal military intervention in Rio, which she had actively spoken out against.

On the night of Wednesday, March 14, Franco attended an event called “Young Black Women Moving Structures” on the Rua dos Inválidos, a busy street in the city center. The description of the event on social media encouraged others to attend and join the councilwoman, along with other female activists, in discussing how to empower young black women in Brazil. The tragic news arrived two hours later: Franco had been shot four times in the head in her car after leaving the event. The car’s driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed after being shot in the back three times. Franco’s press advisor received shrapnel wounds but survived.

Marielle Franco's coffin and that of her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, arriving at the municipal chamber in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, March 15. Photo by Matias Maxx

A vehicle drove by Franco’s car and shot directly through the window of the backseat where the councilwoman was sitting. Although Brazilian police initially commented that it could’ve been a robbery, they later changed their assessment of the bloody crime and said that it was murder. Following Franco’s death, politicians, activists, and organizations such as Amnesty International and the UN of Brazil have called for an immediate police investigation into the assassination.

In Brazil, deeply rooted racial inequality continues to be a systemic problem. In the aftermath of Franco’s death, protests have been planned in numerous cities to fight against black genocide and to celebrate the life of the councilwoman.