Just two days before the first anniversary of Marielle Franco’s assassination on 14 March 2018, civil police arrested two men alleged to be directly involved in the murder of the black, favela-born, bisexual city councillor for the radical left Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSOL) and her driver Anderson Gomes.
Marcelo Freixo, Franco’s fellow PSOL member, political mentor and friend, called the one-year wait for arrests “unacceptable”.
The arrests seemed almost deliberately timed to coincide with mass mobilisations in Rio and across Brazil, demanding an answer to the question: Who killed Franco and Gomes – and more importantly, who ordered them killed? It’s one more coincidence in a case in which everything reeks of coincidence and conspiracy.
Ronnie Lessa, the man suspected of firing into the car carrying Franco, Gomes and Fernanda Chaves (Franco’s aide, who survived the attack and just recently returned from hiding in Europe), happens to live in the same gated community in Rio’s Barra de Tijuca neighborhood (Rio’s glitzy, fake version of Miami) as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. This despite a meagre pension of 8 000 reais (about R29 000). The district attorney also confirmed that Bolsonaro’s youngest son, 21-year-old Renan, dated Lessa’s daughter. But, the office emphasised, those are just coincidences.
Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, who is suspected of driving the car from which Lessa fired 13 rounds from a submachine gun rarely found outside police departments in Brazil, has at least two pictures with then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Lessa, according to the district attorney for Rio state, Letícia Emile Petriz, is not been proven to be connected to any paramilitary criminal organisation. He is said to have acted out of “repulsion for [Franco’s] political activity” in defence of “causes related to minorities.”
This account helps those in power sidestep the key question: Who ordered Franco’s assassination? With Lessa acting nearly alone, with just Queiroz behind the wheel, we can depoliticise a political assassination.
Police carried out 34 other raids and arrests related to the case, one of which led to the seizure of 117 M16 assault rifles in what police say is the largest stock of guns ever apprehended in Rio. The guns were found in the home of one of Lessa’s childhood friends. The homeowner claims he was just doing a favour for his buddy.
As Marxist theorist and Situationist Guy Debord warned about the relationship between the state and organised crime in this stage of late capitalism: “There are ever more people trained to act in secret; prepared and practiced for that alone.”
In Rio, there is a name for these people: The Office of Crime, a hit squad comprised of elite police officers (like BOPE, the police tactical unit of the military police of Rio state, a unit similar to Special Weapons and Tactics or SWAT in the United States).
Coincidentally, when he was a congressman for Rio state, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro used to employ the mother and daughter of Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, the fugitive ex-BOPE officer suspected of heading the band of hired assassins.
At this point, it would be a conspiracy theory to suggest that the Bolsonaro clan, or someone very close to them, called for the assassination of Franco. Coincidences are the bread and chemtrails of conspiracy theories. However, between coincidence and full-blown conspiracy lies the act of conspiring.
The assassination has shed light on the open secret that Rio’s political class, including the Bolsonaro clan, does conspire with deadly militias. This conspiracy secures votes through intimidation, illegal campaign funds and the deaths of political rivals. Given the recent threats against Freixo and fellow PSOL congressman Jean Wyllys – leading Wyllys to go into exile abroad – another open secret is that these acts of violent conspiracy are increasingly targeting socialist politicians.
Militias in plain sight
For those familiar with Rio, there never seemed to be any question that Franco’s assassination was carried out by one of Rio’s infamous militias. These bands of active and former police officers, military personnel and firefighters purport to combat drug trafficking gangs, but operate largely as extortionary mafias who dabble in arms and drug trafficking. They control large swathes of Rio’s territory inhabited by the predominantly black and brown working class. They are particularly active in Rio’s still chaotically urbanising West Zone, of which Bolsonaro’s Barra neighbourhood is a nouveau riche, shopping mall-riddled enclave.
Indeed, the evidence of militia involvement has long been apparent in the public security knowledge present in the plot itself. The 13 bullets fired at the car came from an allotment stolen from the federal police in 2009 and associated with the 2015 massacre of 17 people in São Paulo. The two Cobalt model cars used in the drive-by shooting bore cloned licence plates.
Security cameras near the scene of the assassination had been turned off, though cameras did record one of the cars outside of the Black Women Changing Power Structures event that Franco attended prior to her death. Reports indicate that Lessa had Google-searched places that Franco frequented, prior to the assassination.
Everything indicates that this was the work of professional hitmen with political connections and that Queiroz and Lessa, who was shot by a masked man on a motorcycle while at a beach near his home just one month after the Franco assassination, are co-conspirators.
Incidentally, the idea that Lessa and Queiroz acted alone goes against many of the earlier official announcements related to the case. In late November, Minister of Public Security Raul Jungmann – who oversaw the military intervention of Rio that Franco denounced, and that failed to prevent her assassination – said that based on testimonies “it is clear that a powerful scheme involving public agents, milicianos [militants] and politicians does not want the case to be solved”. In other words, the assassination and the cover-up were, and continue to be, a political conspiracy.
At a press conference on 19 March, PSOL called for a national parliamentary inquiry into militias. Such an inquiry would mirror Freixo’s 2008 state-level investigation, which Franco worked on as his aide at the time. The report implicated more than 200 Rio state politicians, police officers and other public officials, though resulted in fewer arrests.
Militia activity has expanded since the 2008 inquiry. For his part, Freixo has received death threats ever since its publication, most recently in December last year. Those threats came on nearly the same day civil police raided the addresses associated with several militia members, with sensationalist paper Veja running a story with a headline declaring: “Police arrest first suspects in Marielle’s case.”
The Bolsonaro clan and the Office of Crime
During Bolsonaro’s campaign and preceding political life, the connections between his family and militias seemed mostly rhetorical. Jair Bolsonaro had adopted his “a good thug is a dead thug” campaign slogan from a former Rio miliciano and politician. He even openly praised death squads in Bahia on the floors of Congress, saying that “as long as the state does not have the courage to adopt the death penalty, these extermination groups, in my understanding, are welcome”.
Yet suspected direct links have emerged recently owing to an investigation into irregular deposits involving his son, Flavio Bolsonaro, former congressman for Rio state and recently elected federal senator.
At the centre of the ongoing investigation is Fabricio Queiroz (not to be confused with the Élcio Vieira de Queiroz suspected of driving Lessa in the hit against Franco). Fabricio Queiroz is a longtime friend of Jair Bolsonaro’s and served as an aide and driver to Flavio when he was a state congressman.
In December, the Financial Activities Control Council (COAF) released a report documenting how Queiroz moved more than 1 million reais in and out of his bank account between January 2016 and January 2017. He even wrote a cheque to Jair Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, for 24 000 reais, though the family has brushed it off as a repayment for a personal loan.
Queiroz has since confessed to using the funds to hire even more staffers for Flavio ahead of his senate campaign, supposedly without his boss’s knowledge. Additionally, as a congressman, Jair Bolsonaro employed Queiroz’s daughter Nathalia as a staffer, though she was rarely if ever in his Brasilia office.
Isn’t this ironic, or at least an interesting coincidence, for a family that propelled itself to political power by vowing to combat corruption? But that’s not the end of it. The investigation into Queiroz’s transactions revealed Flavio Bolsonaro’s connections to Nóbrega, who is suspected of heading the Office of Crime militia hit squad. This militia allegedly operates out of the West Zone favela of Rio das Pedras, where Queiroz allegedly hid to avoid questioning about his irregular bank activity.
The Bolsonaros insist that Queiroz bears sole responsibility for contracting Nóbrega’s wife and mother to Flavio’s congressional staff. Yet Flavio used his position as a state legislator to award honours to Nóbrega for his police activity – not once, but twice. Nóbrega is currently at large.
The investigation into Franco’s assassination revealed the existence of the Office of Crime, and even with the apprehension of Lessa and Elcio de Queiroz, it remains one of the principal lines of investigation into the case. On 19 August, the O Globo news site first reported the existence of the hit squad – led by current and former elite police officers – via the testimony of one of its members.
The assassins for hire operate throughout Brazil for prices ranging from 200 000 to one million Brazilian reals, depending on the target. The O Globo report goes so far as to say police have unconfirmed information that the Office of Crime charged 200 000 reals for Franco’s murder, but sought more after the overwhelming public repudiation of the crime, locally and internationally.
Governance by conspiracy theories
The Bolsonaro family has proffered their own conspiracy theories. Throughout the investigation and even following the arrests of Lessa and Queiroz, the Bolsonaro family has appropriated the rallying cry for justice for the deaths of Franco and Gomes, asking “Who ordered the death of Jair Bolsonaro?” in reference to the 6 September stabbing of the then candidate at a campaign rally in Minas Gerais. However, Bolsonaro’s alleged attempted murderer, Adélio Bispo da Oliveira, was apprehended shortly after the incident and has since been cooperating with the investigation.
In his most bizarre retaliatory conspiracy theory, Bolsonaro took to his Twitter account to claim that “decades of governments with a socialist bent” had turned Brazil’s iconic carnival into a scene of depravity. Incidentally, this year’s celebrations largely mocked him and paid homage to Franco. His proof – tweeted out to the world – was a video of a carnival reveller partaking in a (consensual) golden shower. He followed this up with the now immortal tweet, “O que é golden shower?” (What is a golden shower?).
Bolsonaro’s presidency by pornography came amid Fabricio Queiroz’s confession of siphoning cash to irregular staffers for Flavio, and a corruption scandal within Boslonaro’s party in which “shell” female candidates were run to secure public campaign money and meet federal gender quotas for parties.
To ensure that conspiracy theories overshadow Bolsonaro’s own acts of conspiring, on the Sunday before the arrests the president again took to Twitter to attack daily newspaper Estadão de São Paulo journalist Constança Rezende, who has reported on the links between Queiroz and Flavio. Rezende happens to be the daughter of Chico Otávio, the O Globo journalist who broke the story of Lessa’s arrest.
A Murder on the West Zone Express
However, before the Lessa connection, the police had been pursuing other lines of investigation that converge in Rio’s West Zone and coincide with the open secret of militias.
The early stages of the investigation maintained Franco’s fellow city council member Marcello Siciliano as a person of interest in the case. As early as May, testimonies tied Siciliano and former military police officer Orlando Oliveira de Araújo, known as Orlando de Curicica, to the assassination. Oliveira has been in prison awaiting conviction since 2017 for murder, and for heading a militia in the West Zone neighbourhood that gave him his nickname. Testimony claims that Siciliano finances the militia that De Araújo heads, and that both men called for Franco’s execution because of her political activity in the West Zone. One of Siciliano’s assistants was murdered shortly after Siciliano’s own police interrogation, raising concerns that he was attempting to cover up his role in the assassination.
Siciliano has repeatedly denied any involvement and after police searched his home and office during the December raids, he called for the federal police to take over the investigation. Globo then reported that money laundering and land fraud could be possible motivations for the crime, as Franco’s staff were carrying out an investigation into irregular land titling in a West Zone neighbourhood dominated by militias and from which Siciliano received much of his electoral support.
He and Franco both started their first city council terms in 2016 and Siciliano contends that their tenure together was too short to lead to such violent animosity.
Even Freixo, at a press conference on 14 December, questioned whether Franco’s land fraud investigation, which never reached parliamentary inquiry status and had not been completed prior to her death, would be sufficient motivation for her assassination. He also emphasised her minimal role in the 2008 parliamentary inquiry.
De Araújo has also denied any involvement and, as early as May, maintained in a letter that the testimony against him is an act of revenge by another military police officer-turned-militia member. In the letter, which was partially published in both the Globo and O Dia newspapers, De Araújo names the officer despite not being privy to any information involving the case.
In August, De Araújo then claimed to the federal prosecutor general that he was coerced into confessing to the murders by Giniton Lages, head of the Civil Police Homicide Division overseeing the case. According to De Araújo, Lages pressured him while he was still in state prison in Rio, threatening to send him to federal prison if he did not confess to his and Siciliano’s involvement. De Araújo was relocated to federal prison in June.
De Araújo’s testimony provided much of the substantiation for the existence of the Office of Crime, though he long asserted that the police actively refused to investigate it owing to the regular payments they received from the organisation.
Jungmann’s November claim that powerful actors within Rio’s security forces have been stalling the investigation stem from De Araújo’s testimony to the prosecutor general and led to a federal police investigation into tampering with the investigation. A report on that investigation, also released on 19 March to little media coverage, substantiates many of De Araújo’s claims and the unnamed, vengeful officer has admitted to the lie.
Meanwhile, Rio Governor Wilson Witzel, who infamously commemorated the destruction of a memorial street sign dedicated to Franco at a campaign rally in the city of Petrópolis, has just announced that Lages will no longer head the investigation into the murder and instead participate in a police exchange in Italy.
Those who conspire seem to know when other conspiracies have turned against them.
One additional line of inquiry has received far less media attention. In August, reports emerged that three state congressmen from the Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MBD) – Edson Albertassi, Paulo Melo and Jorge Picciani – were also being investigated.
MBD had dominated Rio politics for the past decade, holding the governorship from 2007 to 2018 and the mayor’s office from 2009 to 2016, before recent corruption revelations led it to suffer electoral defeats. All three legislators have been arrested in connection with the anti-corruption probe Operation Car Wash, as have former MBD governors Sérgio Cabral and Luiz Pezão.
Picciani had served as the state assembly president five times since his first legislative term in 1990 and was presiding over his sixth when he was arrested. Investigators posit that Franco’s death may have been retaliation against PSOL for preventing Albertassi from assuming a position within the state’s Court of Auditors, which would have maintained his political immunity and thus prevented his arrest.
Militias proliferated under the tenure of multiple MDB governors and mayors, who oversaw much of the expansion into the West Zone through mega-event projects for the Fifa World Cup and Olympic Games. Militias aren’t around by accident; they are the foot soldiers of a criminal political conspiracy to control land and votes.
In an interview on Globo’s Fantastico programme on her return from Europe, Chaves said Franco “did not have militias as a target [of her political projects]” and was much more committed to “questions of gender and violence against women”. No specific project or problem, according to Chaves, would have “set in motion a situation that would culminate in her assassination”.
But Franco did “make other people uncomfortable”. A definitive answer to who ordered the killing would only increase that discomfort. Her presence challenged the racism and sexism of institutions like the city council, where fellow lawmakers refused to take the elevator with her. Her policies, mostly geared towards combating violence against women and increasing access to night-time daycare, centered on working people rather than the monied, connected class. And her political activism in favelas and peripheries constantly shed light on the open secret of state-sanctioned police violence.
Militia politics in the presidential palace
Historian and essayist Perry Anderson notes that Bolsonaro’s presidency represents a “signal shift”. This shift is not simply an ideological one from the decade of social-democratic governance under the Workers Party (PT) administrations of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. It is also geographic.
As Anderson points out, a quarter of Bolsonaro’s ministers are from Rio and Bolsonaro is the first president to constitute his political base in Rio since the capital moved to Brasilia in 1960. Bolsonaro was born in São Paulo state and is thus not carioca, a person from Rio city proper. However, he embraces a carioca way of doing politics, a politics of conspiring and conspiracy.
Rio’s return to political prominence began under Eduardo Cunha, the Machiavellian former MDB president of the House of Deputies and prime candidate for the title of Brazil’s most powerful gangster. Cunha stayed out of jail just long enough to oversee Rousseff’s controversial and conspiracy theory-driven impeachment. Cunha has his own murky history of connections with Rio’s militias in the Baixada Fluminense. The chickens, and the militias, are coming home to roost.
For Bolsonaro’s die-hard supporters, this is all, of course, fake news, a conspiracy theory forged at the communist São Paulo Forum to take down the man who will Make Brazil Great Again (Bolsonaro visited Trump in March). For them, Franco is not an embodiment of the meritocracy they claim to hold so dear – despite the fact that she attended a prestigious private university, obtained a master’s degree and earned her votes rather than hanging on to the coat-tails of her father.
Instead, they see her as a nuisance at best and a closet gang member at worst. The surge in leftist black and LGBTQIA+ candidates who ran for state and federal congress as “the seeds” of Franco’s legacy, simply need to be “cleansed” or “exiled”, according to Bolsonaro’s supporters, as is evident in their elation at Wyllys’s decision to leave Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s inability to govern is not attributed to his sheer mediocrity or the lunacy of his cabinet. Supporters instead claim that if everyone, including members of his own party, would just shut up and let The Myth reign, things would turn around. (The raining twitterstorm of golden showers was weird, they admit.)
The unfortunate truth is that governance by Twitter conspiracy theory will be tolerated by many of his diehard supporters as long as gun ownership is liberated, no matter if that leads to school shootings and letting the police – so what if they are also milicianos – kill the black and brown poor at will. All the better if they are leftists.
Rio’s Mangueira samba school won this year’s competition with a parade showcasing the untold story of Brazil’s indigenous, black and poor populations, culminating in a cathartic tribute to Franco.
Rio city councilman Carlos Bolsonaro then took to Twitter to remind his followers that “they say” the school’s president, Chiquinho da Mangueira, “is arrested [for] involvement with trafficking, illegal bookies and militias”. This was a sign that “the country is truly upside down”.
He failed to mention what “they say” about his father or brother’s involvement, or that he and Chiquinho are members of the same political party.
When it comes to the politics of conspiring that defines Rio, Debord again offered prescient insights: “It is always a mistake to try to explain something by opposing Mafia and state: they are never rivals. Theory easily verifies what all the rumours in practical life have all too easily shown. The Mafia is not an outsider in this world; it is perfectly at home.” It’s the hit squad next door, with no rivals in the presidential palace.
Fortunately, Franco’s seeds grow elsewhere.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Jacobin.