Marielle Franco and the politics of hate in Brazil

On Wednesday, March 14, Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco was shot dead in  a car in the city centre, together with her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Born in the favela of Maré, Marielle Franco was a tireless campaigner for the human rights of the  people of the favelas. With a sociology degree from the city’s famous Catholic university, the PUC, and a Masters in public administration from the Universidade Federal Fluminense, she was a voice to be reckoned with. She was the fifth most voted for candidate in the elections that brought her to the city council as a representative of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), formed by Workers Party dissidents when ex-president Lula steered the PT away from socialism to social democracy. At the time of her death, she was acting as rapporteur for a new commission of 18 councillors set up to monitor the Federal Military Intervention in Rio de Janeiro’s public security system. Her murder has prompted massive street protests, something we have not seen in some time in post-coup Brazil.

Marielle’s death had all the hallmarks of a professional “hit”. It reminded many people of the execution in 2011 of Patricia Acioli, a judge who had unflinchingly persecuted corrupt police linked to the paramilitary mafias called milicias that dominate many Rio favelas. But this is not the moment to speculate about who killed her and why. There needs to be a rapid and convincing official investigation of the crime. The Temer government will certainly be harshly judged, internationally as well as nationally, if its perpetrators and intellectual authors are not identified rapidly.

Yet despite the public outpouring of grief and indignation over the loss of this wonderful woman, some Brazilians who ought to know better are publishing speculations that are designed to discredit the victim. Unfortunately, many judges have very different attitudes to those of the late Patricia Acioli. Judge Marília Castro Neves, of the Tribunal de Justiça do Rio, appears to be one of them. She wrote on her Facebook page that Marielle Franco was linked to the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) crime organisation and objected strongly to the politicisation of the death of a person who should be seen as simply another of the “common corpses” produced by Rio’s favela drug wars, “like any other” and unworthy of having political “added value” attached to it. The judge’s thesis was that being “involved” with criminals and effectively elected by them, Marielle Franco must have been killed by them, like any other favelado killed by bandidos, for failing to deliver on some commitment. It rapidly turned out that the judge had absolutely no evidence to back up this public expression of opinion, and was simply repeating things sent to her in a text by “a friend”.

The PSOL has now made a complaint against this judge to the National Judges’ Council (CNJ). Even if she was only expressing a “personal opinion”, her conduct in this matter would be regarded as unbecoming for a judge in most countries in the world, and one can only hope that appropriate disciplinary action will be taken. But the case is clearly consistent with the view that class and racial prejudices as well as scant regard for normal rules of evidence and proof are major structural problems in the Brazilian justice system.

Judge Marília Castro Neves’s peccadillo was not, however, an isolated incident. The pro-coup Movement Brasil Livre (MBL) immediately took it up as part of its already active campaign to discredit and vilify Marielle Franco via the social media, and there is now an explosion of fake news being disseminated by Brazil’s ultra-right. Equally  disturbing were the pronouncements on the matter of DEM deputy Alberto Fraga, one of the leaders of the iron fist public security lobby in congress. In his Twitter account, Fraga, DEM president in the Federal District, wrote (my translation):

Discover the new myth of the Left. Marielle Franco. Pregnant at age 16, former wife of Marcinho VP [a drug trafficker], marijuana user, defender of the rival faction and elected by Comando Vermelho, dismissed six functionaries, but who killed her was the Military Police.

Fraga now says he will wait for the results of the official investigation, but his original post was widely read. The politics of hate is rampant in Brazil, and one of its most striking features is the hatred displayed by the powerful towards those who are less socially privileged. People born in poverty who achieve education and social mobility are natural targets of  this kind of demonisation. Such attacks on the reputation and memory of a woman who was such an effective campaigner for human rights demonstrate how low the enemies of this kind of activism are prepared to sink.