Brazil: extrajudicial killing of human rights defender Marielle Franco puts rule of law at risk

An opinion piece by Belisário dos Santos Júnior, ICJ Commissioner & Member of ICJ’s Executive Committee

The recent Federal military-led intervention in Rio de Janeiro was carried out, according to the executive decree ordering the operation, “to put an end to a serious breach of public order in the State of Rio”.

The Brazilian Constitution authorizes such exceptional political measures, but they must be ordered by the President and ratified by the Congress.

As far as the security situation was concerned, this additional military intervention was not necessary because the (Rio) State police, the National Public Security Forces and the Army had already been working together for many months, planning and executing numerous so-named “operations to guarantee law and order.”

Nor did the military intervention have anything to do with checks and controls of borders, ports, airports and federal highways, to prevent the international traffic of weapons, ammunition and drugs, notably from Paraguay. Other federal police forces are in charge of these controls.

Recently the Chief Commander of the Army himself said in an interview that the intervention in Rio would only bear fruits in the very long term because it was crucial to first implement structural changes, especially in the public security system, the prison system, and the enforcement of penal law.

It has become obvious that corruption and links with organized crime reach to the highest levels of the civil and military police forces in Rio de Janeiro.

Arguably, the main objective of the military intervention was indeed to reform these police forces. But then if that was the case, it should have started with the removal of the present Governor of the State of Rio, Luis Fernando Pezão, who was the right-arm man of the former Governor Sérgio Cabral, convicted and imprisoned for corruption.  

 It should have also focused on all areas of the State government, and not just the ​​security forces, which do not work in isolation.  Moreover, the police reform would need to be accompanied by public policies and investment to provide local communities (in the favelas) with access to water, sanitation, and electricity.

Today, these local communities are hostage to the numerous drug-traffickers, territorial disputes between gangs and shoot-outs between police forces and organized crime.

In the favelas, services, such as the telephone, cable television, electricity supplies, and the sale of gas canisters are all controlled by criminal gangs and public service providers are systematically defrauded.

The military intervention has been used as a theatrical opportunity to parade armoured vehicles in strategic points of the city, with soldiers who are not trained to manage situations of urban violence but for troop action, and therefore not used to individual decision-making.

Furthermore it should be recalled that in 2018 alone, more than 60 policemen were killed by organized crime, which is approximately equivalent to the number of human rights defenders assassinated in Brazil last year, according to Amnesty International.

Tragically, the recent execution of Marielle Franco, the city councillor and human rights defender, is not even surprising.  She and her driver were killed in the centre of the city, while the military intervention was in full force and all the country’s eyes focused on Rio de Janeiro.

This crime is not only odious, but a clear attack on the rule of law and a challenge to the democratic system. Elected with over 46,000 votes, Marielle Franco was a very active councillor, who in little more than a year, had already presented 13 important draft bills, on issues such as sexual harassment, legal abortion and evening opening hours for nurseries.

Above all it is important to remember that she was highly critical of both the police forces because of their abuses and human rights violations as well as the criminal gangs operating in the communities. And, supreme irony, she had been elected rapporteur of the City Council’s Commission for military oversight in Rio.

It is now known that the bullets that killed Marielle and her driver were from a stolen Federal Police stock and similar bullets had already been used in another similar murder. But both the material and intellectual authors of these murders remain free.

The State Police investigation looks far from being independent. Both the investigation and prosecution should be a Federal responsibility, which is permissible under the Constitution, Article 109, paragraph 5, in cases of serious human rights violations, exactly for the same motives that led to the military intervention in the first place.

However, the Prosecutor General of the Republic apparently declined this option, and only four Federal staff have been assigned to support the State-level Public Ministry in the investigation.

The huge outcry of protest that followed Marielle Franco’s assassination and brought thousands of people onto the streets in various cities of the country might change this situation.

Numerous and diverse demonstrations reveal there is a mounting rejection of Brazilian politics.

Human rights groups are considering how to increase international pressure, so that such a gross attack on the rule of law does not remain in impunity. For this reason, international missions will be very welcome in Brazil.

On the other hand, organized crime, both in Brazil and throughout Latin America, has become an extremely serious social phenomenon.

With the capacity to mobilize important financial resources, weapons and ammunition, organized crime has orchestrated riots in prisons, protests and blockades, paralyzing major cities with the burning of buses, for example, taking advantage of State police strikes.

Taken together with the attacks and the killing of public authorities, it seems that Brazil is in danger of “Colombianization”.

With the combination of corrupt security forces and armed groups linked to drug trafficking Brazil finds itself in a similar situation to what happened previously in Colombia and Mexico.

According to the National Justice Council, some 200 Brazilian judges are under police protection, including a Supreme Court Judge who is a rapporteur in cases of corruption.

In Rio de Janeiro in 2011, Judge Patricia Accioly was killed, shot no less than 28 times, after she had ordered the arrest of three military police officers.

During the last elections in Brazil, in 2016, there were 45 attempted murders of election candidates and 28 were killed, with half of these deaths occurring in Rio de Janeiro alone.

The situation in Rio is very serious, but the systematic violence and corruption in the whole of the country is equally concerning. The rule of law and the democratic system itself are at risk.

One of the first film pictures of the Federal military intervention in Rio showed school children, with their hands up, being searched by soldiers.

Is this the way to go? Is this the right way to protect the rule of law and to defend citizens?

Tragically, this situation is continuing. There will soon be more to write about it.

Brazil-Belisario sobre Marielle Franco-News-op-eds-2018-POR (Portuguese version in PDF)