Two months have gone by since the dreadful day in March when Marielle Franco, a Rio city councilwoman who crusaded tirelessly against human rights violations, and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, were shot dead as they drove through downtown.
Two months is not a long time for a complex homicide investigation like this one, but it is a crucial period. As time goes on, evidence is lost, witnesses disappear, and the chance of finding the killers diminishes.
The deaths of Marielle and Anderson have frightened many people, especially human rights defenders in the front lines. That fear will remain as long as the killers are free, and their motives are unknown.
So far, virtually all we know about these murders has come from leaks published by the media.
One of those leaks points to the possibility of the involvement of a councilman, an active police officer, and a retired police officer in the killings. The public security minister, Raul Jungmann, acknowledged publicly that the three are under investigation. The possible participation of law enforcement in the murders does not come as a surprise to anyone in a state engulfed in a public security crisis fueled by police corruption and their involvement in organized crime and extrajudicial killings.
Impunity has long plagued Brazil. It seems that every other day there is a shooting with multiple victims. And the sad reality is that the vast majority of killers are never caught. Marielle’s and Anderson’s murders are a test of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil’s ability to address such brutality and curb impunity.
Under Brazil’s Constitution, the Prosecutor’s Office is in charge of ensuring that the police abide by the law. But for decades it failed to adequately fulfill that duty. A major step forward was the creation in December of 2015 of the Group of Specialized Action in Public Security (GAESP), a specialized prosecutorial unit tasked with investigating police abuses and making sure that the civil police conduct thorough and professional investigations. Such a unit can develop the expertise required for the type of evidence found in cases of this sort, and analyze patterns of abuse beyond individual cases.
But for GAESP to be involved, the prosecutor in charge of the case needs to formally ask for its assistance. He has so far refused to do so. In light of the new revelations about possible involvement of police officers in the murders, it is very important for the prosecutor to accept the special unit’s expertise. At the end of the day, if the investigation does not produce adequate results, the responsibility would not fall only on the civil police but also in the Prosecutor’s Office.
Rio and federal authorities should provide regular updates on the general progress of the investigation and the resources invested in solving the case. It is not a matter of revealing sensitive information but of expressing and showing an unequivocal commitment to catching the assassins.
Marielle was a rare beacon of hope in Brazil. She was a black, gay, woman who grew up poor in the favelas and rose, in a society dominated by wealthy, heterosexual, white men, to be a leader in the fight against two seemingly intractable problems. Among them are endemic police and military violence, and the impunity enjoyed by those who commit it.
Identifying and punishing the killers – not just the triggermen, but those who hired them – should be among the highest priorities not only of Rio’ civil police but also its Prosecutor’s Office, as well as federal authorities, who should provide any support needed to the investigation.