Two former police officers have been arrested over the murder of the Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, two days before the first anniversary of her death, which prompted international outrage.
Franco, a groundbreaking politician who was born in one of Rio’s largest favelas and became a voice for disadvantaged people in the city, was killed in a drive-by shooting along with her driver, Anderson Gomes.
She had criticised police killings in the favelas where she grew up and took part in a 2008 state legislature inquiry into the paramilitary gangs that dominate large areas of Rio state. Known as militias, these groups often include police officers.
The suspects were identified as Ronnie Lessa, a retired military police officer, and élcio Vieira de Queiroz, a former police officer.
Investigators said Lessa fired the shots that killed Franco and Gomes on 14 March last year, on the north side of Rio. Queiroz drove the car that ambushed them, investigators said. Queiroz had been expelled from the police.
Prosecutors from a special organised crime unit said in a statement that the shooting was meticulously planned over the course of three months. “It is incontestable that Marielle Franco was summarily executed for her political activity in the defence of the causes she defended,” they added.
Both men were arrested at their homes, prosecutors said. Their homes were searched and documents, laptops, cellphones, weapons, ammunition and other items were seized. Prosecutors also requested that Lessa’s pension and weapons permit be suspended and damages to the families of the victims be paid.
Soon after the arrest, a photograph was shared on social media purportedly showing Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, with Queiroz. The Brazilian magazine Veja reported that the image had been taken in 2011 and posted on Queiroz’s Facebook page last year. The Facebook profile was reportedly deleted on Tuesday morning.
Bolsonaro played down the photo on Tuesday afternoon. “There are photos of me with thousands of police officers,” he said.
The president said that he hoped investigators would find out who ordered Franco’s killing, but then added: “I am also interested in who ordered me to be killed” – a reference to the knife attack on him during last year’s presidential campaign.
At a press conference in Rio de Janeiro, investigating officer Giniton Lages also confirmed that one of Bolsonaro’s sons once dated a daughter of the other suspect, Lessa. “We will deal with this at an opportune moment. It’s not important right now,” Lages said.
The president’s press office did not respond to requests to comment.
Lages described a massive investigation that involved wiretaps on 318 telephone lines, 760 GB of data and 5,700 pages, but he left the biggest question of all unanswered: who ordered the murder of Marielle Franco, and why?
This, Lages said, belonged to the “second phase” of the investigation. “The second phase is ongoing and no information about the second phase will be provided now,” he said.
Franco’s fiancee, M?nica Benício, told the Guardian: “This is an important step in the investigations, no doubt. But one year is too much time for a murder like this.
“More important than the arrests … is an answer to the most urgent question: who ordered Marielle to be killed? I hope I don’t have to wait another year to know who ordered all this.”
Marcelo Freixo, the congressman and former state legislature lawmaker with whom Franco began her career, also said the arrests had come too late. “It’s unacceptable that we waited a year to have a response,” he told Globo news. “Who ordered this?”
Franco’s aide, Fernanda Chaves, who survived the attack and has since been in hiding, described the incident to the Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias.
Chaves said she grabbed the handbrake after hearing a burst of shots and the car window shattering. “I just thought there had been a gunfight,” she said. “As it was very quiet in the street, I started to call people, who came closer, without understanding what had happened.”
She said she did not realise what had happened until she heard the police say “Two shot dead and one survivor”.
Since her murder, Franco has become a symbolic figure for Brazilian women. Last week, people used the city’s annual carnival to demand answers in the case.
Rio’s most famous samba school, Mangueira, paid tribute to the murdered politician with a sequinned show of song, dance and dissent. Partygoers streamed down Rio’s Sambadrome waving green and pink flags emblazoned with Franco’s image and placards reading “Justice for Marielle”.
After the prosecutors’ press conference, Franco’s family paid tearful tribute to her legacy. “Marielle started a movement, a worldwide movement,” said her sister, Anielle. “They didn’t silence Marielle – on the contrary, they started a gigantic noise.”