Police Say They’ve Cracked Rio de Janeiro’s Most Notorious Murder Mystery

“Who killed Marielle Franco?” That has been the question haunting Rio de Janeiro for the past six years, ever since a gunman assassinated the Black, gay, feminist councilwoman who had fought the city’s entrenched corruption and powerful gangs.

But now her family and the thousands of supporters who have taken to the streets in Ms. Franco’s name appear to have an answer.

Brazilian police officers on Sunday morning arrested Chiquinho and Domingos Brazão — two brothers who once served on Rio’s City Council, as did Ms. Franco — on accusations that they ordered her 2018 murder to silence her battles against corruption, according to court documents.

The police also arrested Rivaldo Barbosa, the former Rio police chief who initially oversaw the investigation into Ms. Franco’s killing, on accusations that he intentionally obstructed it, court documents said.

The police recommended homicide charges against Chiquinho Brazão and Mr. Barbosa. Domingos Brazão could not yet be charged because of his current job as a court official, according to police officials.

Ubiratan Guedes, the lawyer representing Domingos Brazão, denied the accusations against his client. “He did not know Marielle, had no connection with Marielle,” he told reporters on Sunday.

Lawyers for Mr. Barbosa said they needed more time to review the accusations. Lawyers for Chiquinho Brazão, who served on Rio’s council at the same time as Ms. Franco and is now a federal congressman, did not comment.

Ms. Franco and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, were murdered in March 2018 when a gunman sprayed their car with bullets as they left an event focused on empowering Black women. Ms. Franco, 38, had been one of Brazil’s rising political stars. She grew up in a favela — the deeply impoverished neighborhoods in Rio’s hillsides — and rose to become the only Black woman who was elected in 2016 to Rio’s City Council.

She quickly became perhaps the loudest voice against Rio’s notorious violence, arguing it was rooted in deep inequality and a corrupt, brutal police force. She also took on Rio’s militias, the criminal paramilitary groups founded by former police officers that control many favelas and extort their residents.

When that made her a target, Ms. Franco was defiant. One night in March 2018, she posted online about the suspected police killing of a young Black man as he left a church, writing, “How many more must die for this war to end?” She was killed the next night.

Since then, her murder has become a rallying cry for activists across Brazil, with “Who killed Marielle Franco?” emblazoned across murals, T-shirts and protest banners.

After Ms. Franco’s death, her sister, Anielle Franco, rose to fame as an anti-violence activist on a crusade for justice. She became Brazil’s first minister of racial equality last year. In a television interview on Sunday, Anielle Franco said that the long fight to remember Ms. Franco and find her killers shows “we are responding to political violence, to the favela residents who voted for Marielle, and to the women who courageously entered the political arena in a system that tells us this isn’t for us.”

Before Sunday’s arrests, the police had arrested four other suspects in the assassination, including two former police officers. One of those, Ronnie Lessa, is accused of shooting Ms. Franco and Mr. Gomes.

Brazil’s Supreme Court confirmed a plea deal for Mr. Lessa last week, meaning his confession could be used in the investigation. Mr. Lessa’s lawyers then dropped him as a client.

When that news stirred speculation in the press that the Brazão brothers could soon be arrested, the brothers publicly denied they had been involved in the crime.

Chiquinho Brazão served with Ms. Franco on Rio’s 51-seat council and was elected to Congress shortly after her killing.

Domingos Brazão was a Rio city councilor from 1997 to 1999 before moving on to Rio’s state legislature and then the state court system. Over 25 years in public office, he has faced police accusations of vote-buying and homicide, which were later dropped.

Marcelo Freixo, a former Rio city councilor who helped introduce Ms. Franco to politics, said Sunday in a television interview that he was not surprised at the accusations that such senior officials were involved.

“We’ve long stated that crime, police and politics are inextricably linked in Rio,” he said.

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