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Marielle Franco: two politicians and ex-police chief arrested over Brazil murder

· Matérias

Marielle Franco: two politicians and ex-police chief arrested over Brazil murder

Two powerful politicians and Rio de Janeiro’s former chief of police have been arrested as part of a federal police operation targeting the suspected masterminds of the 2018 assassination of Rio councillor Marielle Franco.

The operation – named Murder, Inc – was launched at the crack of dawn on Sunday and came just over six years after the shooting of Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, caused an international outcry.

Brazilian media reports said three prominent figures were arrested: the federal congressman, Chiquinho Brazão; his brother, the former state congressman, Domingos Brazão, who is a adviser to Rio’s court of auditors; and the former head of Rio’s civil police, Rivaldo Barbosa.

The Brazão brothers have long faced accusations of involvement in organised crime – claims they have denied. During the 1980s, the men were reportedly known in Rio as the “Irmãos Metralha” (The Beagle Boys) – a reference to the Disney cartoon villains.

As news of the arrests broke, Marcelo Freixo, a prominent leftwing politician who was close to Franco, tweeted: “The arrests today of the Brazão brothers and Rio’s former police chief make clear who carried out this killing, who ordered it, and who failed to investigate it.”

Renata Souza, a lawmaker who was also a friend of Franco, called the arrests “a very important step”. “The Brazilian state and justice system owe society an explanation. It has been six years of such pain and sadness and today we are now close to getting the answers that we need,” Souza tweeted.

Franco’s family said in a statement: “This is a historic day for Brazilian democracy and an important step forwards in the pursuit of justice. Nothing will bring back our Mari but we are one step closer to the answers we crave.”

“This is a significant triumph of the Brazilian state against organized crime,” the justice minister Ricardo Lewandowski told reporters in the capital, Brasília.

View image in fullscreenMonica Benicio, widow of Marielle Franco, told reporters the assassination was an attack on democracy. Photograph: Andre Coelho/EPA

Franco, a 38-year-old lawmaker from the Socialism and Freedom party, was gunned down on the night of 14 March 2018 as she returned home from an event. During her short career in politics, the black, gay favela-born activist had earned a reputation as a courageous defender of Brazil’s minorities and an outspoken campaigner against police violence.  

Six years after the assassination, the hitman who has confessed to pulling the trigger, a former police officer called Ronnie Lessa, is behind bars awaiting trial. However, until now the alleged architects of the crime have remained at large and their motivations remain a mystery.

The question, “Quem mandou matar Marielle?” (“Who ordered Marielle’s murder?”) has become a rallying cry for the Brazilian left, at protests and on social media, but for years that question has gone unanswered.

The 2022 election of the leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, breathed new life into the apparently stalled quest to catch Franco’s killers. Lula vowed to fight “tirelessly” to bring the masterminds to justice and, in a highly symbolic move, made Franco’s younger sister, Anielle Franco, his minister for racial equality.

On Sunday, Anielle Franco thanked Lula’s government and the federal police for what she called a “great day”.

“God alone knows how much we have dreamed of this day. Today is yet another big step towards us getting the answers to the questions we have asked so many times over the last few years: ‘Who killed Mari and why?” tweeted Franco.  

Sunday’s arrests appeared to be the result of a plea bargain Lessa recently struck with investigators, in which he agreed to name the masterminds in exchange for a reduced sentence and other benefits.

The precise alleged roles of the Brazão brothers – who built their political careers in Rio’s paramilitary dominated west – and the former police chief Barbosa were not immediately clear. However, local reports claimed Lessa had accused Barbosa of green-lighting the murder and assuring the masterminds that they would never be caught.

The revelation that Rio’s top cop may have been involved in one of the most notorious crimes in the city’s history stunned friends and relatives of the murdered politician. Just days after the murder, Barbosa assured reporters: “We will not rest while this crime is not solved.

View image in fullscreenProtesters in São Paulo pay tribute to Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes in March, marking six years since their death. Photograph: Ronaldo Silva/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

On Sunday morning, he was arrested at his home in a condo in west Rio. The assets of the former police chief’s wife were reportedly frozen as a result of suspicion she had been involved in money laundering.

Anielle Franco broke down in tears as the news of Barbosa’s possible involvement was broken to her live on Brazilian television. “They murdered my sister but we will not crumble … We are here and here we will remain, championing Marielle’s legacy.”

Franco’s widow, Monica Benício, voiced outrage at the ex-police chief’s alleged involvement. “This is not just a betrayal, it is an attack on democracy itself. And unfortunately it reveals a great deal about politics in Rio de Janeiro and how the underworld is connected to the police,” she told reporters.

Asked if she now feared for her own life given the power of organised crime in Rio, Benício said the pain of the murders had equipped the victims’ families with irrepressible bravery. “Nothing will conquer the fight for justice for Marielle and Anderson,” she vowed.

As police made their arrests early on Sunday, Flávio Dino, Lula’s former justice minister and a supreme court judge, tweeted an excerpt from Psalm 92: “Senseless people do not know, fools do not understand, that though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed for ever”.

Ubiratan Guedes, a lawyer for the Brazão brothers, denied his clients were involved in the murder and voiced surprise at his arrest. “He did not know Marielle. He had no connection to Marielle and now it’s up to his defence to prove his innocence,” Guedes said of Domingos Brazão. Barbosa’s lawyer reportedly declined to answer questions as he arrived at the federal police headquarters where Rio’s former police chief was being held.

The Guardian
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