To dare to murder someone with a profile as high in Rio de Janeiro as Councilwoman Marielle Franco takes a lot of confidence that there will be no justice.
Franco, 38, was a black, bisexual human rights defender born in a poor neighborhood who advocated tirelessly for minorities and women´s rights, and who denounced police abuses. She was a rising young star amid an old cadre of Rio politicians tainted by corruption and incompetence. She was all that and more—until four bullets struck her head as she rode in a car through Rio de Janeiro on March 14.
Her killing and that of her driver, Anderson Gomes, reflects the climate of near impunity prevalent in Rio, and in Brazil as a whole—and the failure of the public security system.
The country´s prisons are overflowing, but with the wrong people. Politicians have traditionally expanded the military police —the force that patrols the streets and is visible to voters—while neglecting to enhance the investigative capacity of the civil police. The military police show they are doing their job by detaining people in flagrante, often poor young people in possession of drugs, whether for personal use or to sell. People awaiting trial or convicted for selling small amounts of drugs or other non-violent crimes end up locked up for years in prisons controlled by gangs.
On the flip side, thousands of people who should be in prison are not. In Rio de Janeiro, prosecutors filed charges in only 12 percent of homicide cases in 2015, a recent study by the Instituto Sou da Paz reports. We do not know how many result in convictions because Brazilian courts do not regularly publish that data. The Instituto da Paz study shows that every year thousands of Rio de Janeiro families who lose a loved one get no justice.
A Rio homicide investigator told me that civil police investigate only homicides that seem easy to solve, and don’t bother with those that look difficult. In some of the homicides I’ve documented in poor neighborhoods, investigators did not even visit the crime scene.
One subset of homicides is particularly prickly: those committed by police. Only a few days before her death, Franco had posted several tweets about police abuse.
Police killed 1,124 people in Rio State alone in 2017, more than police in all the United States killed that year. Some of the killings by Rio police were in self-defense, but others were extrajudicial executions, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have found. Police committed almost one in four of the homicides in the state of Rio in January.
Impunity in those cases is particularly devastating, not just because of the suffering of the victims´ families but because abuses by military and civil police officers make communities distrust the police and unwilling to cooperate in fighting crime. That makes the job of all police officers, including those who obey the law, much more difficult and dangerous.
Brazilian politicians often advocate harsher sentences as the main means to fight crime, while turning a blind eye to police brutality. But at the root of the country´s public security disaster is impunity. To address crime, Brazil needs to undertake a thorough reform of the police forces, strengthening the investigative capacity of civil police and creating mechanisms within the justice system and the police forces to investigate and punish officers who break the law.
Otherwise, we will be shedding tears for many more Marielle Francos and Anderson Gomeses.