Brazilian police arrest suspects in the murder of councilwoman Marielle Franco

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s federal police on Sunday arrested two men suspected of ordering the murder of a popular Rio de Janeiro councilwoman in 2018, a long-awaited step after years of society clamoring for justice.

The murder of Marielle Franco, a 38-year-old black and bisexual councilwoman in a drive-by shooting, deeply shook Brazil and resonated around the world.

Police investigations showed that federal deputy Chiquinho Brazão and his brother Domingos Brazão, a member of the Rio state audit body, were detained on suspicion of ordering a coup against Franco. Both have alleged connections to criminal groups, known as militias, that illegally charge residents for various services, including protection.

Ubiratan Guedes, Domingos Brazão’s lawyer, denied the accusations against his client. “He didn’t know Marielle, he had no connection to Marielle,” he told reporters Sunday.

Lawyers for Chiquinho Brazão, who served on the Rio council at the same time as Franco and is now a congressman, and former police chief Rivaldo Barbosa, said their clients denied wrongdoing, according to local media.

Brazil’s Minister of Justice, Ricardo Lewandowski, said at a press conference that the motivation for the crime is “complex because that group (the Brazão) has multiple interests.” He said investigations have suggested that lawmaker Chiquinho Brazão was especially upset by a bill his then-colleague Franco sponsored at city hall on regulating land for building public housing in Rio.

“At this moment we are very clear about who the authors of this hateful and atrocious crime of a political nature are,” said the minister, who added that documents were seized from four other people. Among them, he said, is a police detective who also investigated the case, Giniton Lages. Lewandowski also said the previously jailed men will be transferred from Rio to the capital, Brasilia.

The arrests of the men who allegedly ordered Franco’s murder came four days after Brazil’s Supreme Court validated a plea deal for the shooter, who was arrested along with the driver in 2019.

The investigation into Franco’s murder had been troubled for years. Rio state civil police were unable to solve the case after the arrest and indictment of the shooter and driver. The lead detectives were changed four times before February 2023. Federal authorities then tried to take control of the case, but were not allowed to do so, which also raised suspicions of obstruction, according to Lewandowski.

The driver admitted to the double murder of Franco and his driver. The shooter, disgraced former police officer Ronnie Lessa, signed a plea deal with authorities in January and his admission led to Sunday’s arrests.

Barbosa, Rio’s police chief at the time of the murder, was also arrested for allegedly obstructing the investigation, federal police chief Andrei Rodrigues said at a news conference.

“He actively tried to divert the investigation from those who ordered the murder,” Rodrigues said. Earlier, Franco’s widow, Monica Benicio, said Barbosa offered her condolences after the murder of his wife and promised to be tough in his efforts to find her killers.

Franco worked as an assistant to then-state legislator Marcelo Freixo in 2008, while he chaired a special committee investigating militias in Rio’s state assembly. Freixo’s final report indicted 226 alleged militiamen, politicians and government employees, including Domingos Brazão. While Brazão 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 remain unresolved and never provoke the same level of outrage as Franco’s death. She had been a rising political star and had gained fame by exposing police abuse and violence against residents of working-class neighborhoods known as favelas.

Known universally by her first name, Franco grew up in a favela: the Mare neighborhood, near Rio’s international airport. There she became a human rights activist after her friend was killed by a stray bullet in a shootout between police and drug traffickers. She worked for Freixo investigating organized crime and then won a seat on Rio’s municipal council in 2016. She continued to receive and share complaints of police abuse until just days before she was murdered.

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

On the night of March 14, 2018, she left an event to empower young black women when a car pulled up next to hers and opened fire. Franco and his driver, Anderson Gomes, died instantly.

“Why did they choose Marielle? Without a doubt it was because she is a black woman, they were sure they would go unpunished,” Freixo said on X, formerly Twitter. He wrote that crowds gathered the day after her murder to mourn her and that those who killed her failed to see “the greatness of what Marielle represented.”

The brutality of the assassination and the political hope she had embodied transformed Franco into a symbol of leftist resistance in Brazil and abroad: people organized mass protests to channel their indignation; her silhouette was painted on walls throughout Brazil and printed on t-shirts; her name appears on a sign in front of Rio’s city hall; and her sister, Anielle Franco, has been named Brazil’s Minister of Racial Equality.

The Brazão brothers’ political clan is associated with an area of ​​the city historically dominated by militias, groups initially composed primarily of former police officers and off-duty officers who wanted to combat lawlessness in their neighborhoods with armed force. They began extorting store owners and charging for services such as internet, cooking gas, and cable television. More recently, they have expanded their illicit businesses into land grabbing and real estate development.

Brazil’s lower house will soon vote on whether to uphold the arrest of its legislator Chiquinho Brazão. A simple majority of 257 votes could free him as investigations progress. Brazão, a strong supporter of former President Jair Bolsonaro, likely has significant support from his peers.


Sá Pessoa reported from Sao Paulo. Associated Press writers Eleonore Hughes and Mauricio Savarese contributed from Rio and Sao Paulo, respectively.

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