A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
On Tuesday, January 22, two suspects were announced in the murder case of Marielle Franco—a Brazilian councilwoman recognized for her advocacy against police brutality, racial inequality, and her championship of women’s and LGBTQ rights—who was shot dead in Rio de Janeiro in March 2018. According to the Brazilian news outlet G1, one suspect, Ronald Paulo Alves Pereira, was arrested; and a warrant was issued for a second suspect, Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, who remains at large.
Pereira is a Military Police Major within the state government who, according to the G1 report, also acted as the commander of the illegal, civilian-run militia that ruled the city’s Muzema favela. Such paramilitary groups—often consisting of former or current policemen, soldiers, or firefighters—are common in Rio de Janeiro. While they claim to combat drug gangs, the illegality of their operations ranges from racketeering, gambling, and the illegal sale of real estate and cable services, and they consolidate their power through violence. Pereira himself is believed to be a member of Escritorio do Crime, the group that has been linked to Franco’s assassination.
In 2004, Pereira was honored by senator-elect Flávio Bolsonaro, the son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose far-right ideology and abysmal track record on women’s rights, LGBTQ individuals, and the country’s indigenous communities has garnered comparisons to Donald Trump. Less than a year before the commendation, Pereira was being investigated for his leading role in a slaughter that resulted in the death of five young people in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense district.
The second suspect at large, Nóbrega, is a former captain of BOPE (the Special Police Operations Battalion), an elite unit within Rio’s Military Police force. According to the national newspaper O Globo, Flávio had employed Nóbrega's mother and wife in his office as state representative up until last year. Flávio also bestowed honors on Nóbrega, first in 2003 and again in 2004, for his service. In 2005, he nominated Nóbrega for the Tiradentes medal—the highest honor granted to an individual by the Legislative Assembly in the State of Rio de Janeiro—which he won.
In April 2018, just weeks after her death, Franco posthumously received the received the same medal. Flávio was the only Legislative member to vote against granting the late councilwoman the award, claiming that her ideology didn’t align with his. In October of the same year, when two candidates from the Social Liberal Party (PSL), the same party as the senator-elect, broke the street sign bearing Franco’s name, Flávio condoned the act, arguing that it served to “restore the order.”
A similar thread of anti-Franco sentiment can be traced back to President Bolsonaro. After her death, then-candidate Bolsonaro was the only presidential hopeful to not release a statement about her killing—a move his own campaign advisor said was motivated by the fact that Bolsonaro’s opinion on the matter was “too controversial.” It is also worth noting that, in 2003 during his time as a federal congressman, Bolsonaro showed appreciation for death squads like that of Pereira and Nóbrega’s, arguing that such groups “replaced the death penalty” in the country. His son Flávio has echoed the sentiment, having gone on the record to say he favors the legalization of militias.
Shortly after the Pereira’s arrest and Nóbrega’s warrant was made public, Flávio responded in a statement released on Facebook and Twitter. In it, he denied any involvement in hiring Nóbrega’s mother and wife to work for him, stressed that he has always “advocated for public safety agents,” and that those who have made mistakes must be brought to justice.
“I am still the victim of a defamatory campaign, whose goal is to attack President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. The employee who is named on the Coaf report was hired by recommendation of my former advisor, Fabrício Queiroz, who was in charge of supervising her work. I cannot be held accountable for the behavior of someone I do not know, whose actions have only been reported now by this organization.
I have emphasized that everything must be investigated and that those responsible be brought to justice, according to the current law.
As for the employee’s status as the mother of a runaway criminal, who has already been convicted by the Justice Department, I would like to reiterate that it’s yet another irresponsible deduction perpetrated by those who wish to slander me.
As for the honors granted to these military men, I can only say that I have always advocated for public safety agents and have granted hundreds of other honors before and after them.
Those who have made mistakes must be held accountable for their actions.”
The Brazilian outfit of Amnesty International released a statement on the arrests, urging that any resolution to the case be rooted in concrete evidence and emphasizing the importance on behalf of the country’s criminal justice system to take adequate measures against death squads. “The case of Marielle’s murder can only be closed once an accurate investigation is completed and those responsible are brought to justice for this very murder, not for other crimes,” the statement reads.