A black person is murdered in Brazil every 23 minutes. What’s startling about that statistic — and Brazil’s record-high murder rate, in general — is that it that it is all too often the Brazilian police responsible for killing a generation of black mothers, fathers, future doctors, promising artists and composers — and rising politicians like Marielle Franco. In doing so, they deny Brazil of the human potential, talent and diversity of ideas that transform societies into what they are meant to be.
A report commissioned by the Brazilian Senate concluded that “the Brazilian state, directly or indirectly, perpetrates the genocide of the young black population.” That same government provides Brazil’s hyper-militarized police force with the tools to commit some of the worst human-rights atrocities in South America, routinely uses extrajudicial killings to silence opponents and eradicate enemies.
Brazil’s vicious war on drugs and gangs targets the poor and black residents of favelas, turning those areas into war zones where military tanks, police checkpoints, cops brandishing riot gear and automatic weapons terrorize residents. Investigations into drug trafficking and money laundering in Brazil, however, more often than not, find the main culprits not in the favelas, but at the highest levels of Brazilian businesses and politics. While Brazil’s government turned a blind eye, Rio’s police killed 8,000 people this past decade — 75 percent of them were black men. In comparison, it took U.S. law enforcement almost 30 years to kill almost the same number of people.
In a country where politics has become synonymous with corruption and violence, Franco, a popular Afro-Brazilian councilwoman, rose from the violence of Maré, one of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest favelas, as a vocal critic of police brutality against black people and an advocate for gender equality. She had become the voice of her generation, expounding a burning frustration with the status quo, denouncing police brutality, confronting racism and tying women’s rights to human rights. Hers was a vision for Brazil that re-imagined it as country built on equality and inclusion — anti-racist, feminist and governed by those who respected the rule of law as well as for their fellow man. She embodied the potential for what Brazil could become rather than what it was.
When the federal government took over responsibility for Rio’s security in February to try to stem a wave of police and drug-related violence, Franco publicly criticized the intervention of thousands of armed men into an environment already reeling from violence. Just four days before her vehicle was shot up by unknown assailants, Franco publicly called the police unit the “death battalion” and accused it of killing young men in the favela. The day before her death, she tweeted an ominous question after a young man was killed by the police as he left church in a favela: “How many more need to die for this war to end?”
She died from four gunshots to the head on March 14. Since then, tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets in mourning and frustration, holding signs that read “Vidas Negras Importam” (Black Lives Matter) and “Marielle Presente” (Marielle is here). The protests shouldn’t be mistaken solely as an outcry against Franco’s assassination. The protests are against Brazil’s descent into a corrupt, hyper-militarized society where bullets rather than debates silence critics — a society that once painted itself as a racial utopia only to condemn its black citizens to die in a cycle of structural and literal violence.
Franco’s death wasn’t just a blow to Afro-Brazilians, it was a blow to all Brazilians who value human rights, dignity and justice. Her death marks the public unraveling of the fabric of a society that allowed a promising young politician to be unceremoniously executed in a drive-by a few feet away from City Hall for merely daring to do what a leader should do — advocate for the rights of society’s most vulnerable people. In losing Franco, Brazil cannot risk also losing her vision for the future rooted in the promise of what Brazil should be.
France Francois, of Miami, is a writer and human-rights activist. She has worked in international development in Latin America and the Caribbean.