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Excerpt: "Brazilian police on Tuesday arrested two former police officers in the killing of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver, a brazen assassination that shocked Brazilians and sparked protests in several countries."

Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Marielle Franco smiles for a photo in Cinelandia square on Jan. 9, 2018. Police in Brazil said on Tuesday that they have arrested two suspects in the killing of Franco. (photo: Ellis Rua/AP)
Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Marielle Franco smiles for a photo in Cinelandia square on Jan. 9, 2018. Police in Brazil said on Tuesday that they have arrested two suspects in the killing of Franco. (photo: Ellis Rua/AP)


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Brazil: Arrests in Marielle Franco Killing, Rio Police in Spotlight

By Peter Prengaman and Anna Jean Kaiser, Associated Press

13 March 19

 

razilian police on Tuesday arrested two former police officers in the killing of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver, a brazen assassination that shocked Brazilians and sparked protests in several countries.

The arrests come two days before the anniversary of the killings. While police had questioned many people, before Tuesday nobody had been arrested or charged in the shooting of Franco, a prominent activist for Afro-Brazilian and LGBT rights.

The two men were taken into custody early Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro, police said.

"It was a crime against a lawmaker, a woman, exercising her democratic function and had her life taken away through in an unacceptable, criminal way," Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Wilson Witzel told reporters. "It's unacceptable to any human being, but this was even more unacceptable because Marielle was exercising parliamentary duties."

While Witzel praised police and investigators for the arrests, the case highlighted deep corruption in police forces, including connections to militias, paramilitary groups that control large swaths of the state.

The suspects were identified as Ronnie Lessa, a 48-year-old retired officer, and Elcio Vieira de Queiroz, 46, who was expelled from the force in 2015 for reasons authorities did not explain. Lessa was arrested at his residence in the same upscale condominium complex where President Jair Bolsonaro has his home, authorities said.

Lessa allegedly shot Franco and De Queiroz allegedly drove a car involved in the attack.

Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were returning from a meeting Franco had attended on empowering black women when their car was attacked.

Marcelo Freixo, a state legislator and friend of Franco, told Globo TV the arrests were an important step, but the case "has not been resolved."

"Who sent them (to kill Franco)?" Freixo said. "We don't accept the version that these people were motivated by passion and hate when they didn't even really know who Marielle was."

Authorities have not detailed the men's motivation but said several more arrests were likely.

Franco, who was black, lesbian, and grew up in one of Rio de Janeiro's roughest neighborhoods, stood out in a country where most politicians are white men. She had been a frequent critic of police violence, particularly in poor neighborhoods.

Marches honoring Franco were planned for Thursday, the anniversary of the killings.

Police and politicians in the state have been under intense pressure to solve the case, which included sophisticated planning by the assassins, right down to making sure surveillance cameras were shut off on the street where the attack happened. Months after the hit, police even went to the trouble to recreate the crime scene, shutting down a large swath of downtown Rio for a day in attempts to gather clues.

Throughout the investigation, there have been numerous media leaks and optimistic statements by authorities about getting close to solving the case, drawing criticism from human rights groups that argued such actions lowered the chances of getting justice.

Witzel, a former judge who was inaugurated Jan. 1, was criticized last year when he participated in a rally with other candidates who had broken a street sign commemorating Franco.

A close ally of Bolsonaro, Witzel ran on promises to get tough on crime in a state traditionally riddled with it, including by using sharpshooters to take out armed drug dealers in favelas.

The high-profile arrests will go a long way toward quieting critics who argued Witzel would let the case go unsolved.

"The reality is changing," Witzel said of the police and reforms under way.

Still, deep mistrust of the Rio state police forces, some of the most lethal in the world, will be hard to shake.

Indeed, the Justice Ministry sent a tweet assuring Brazilians that federal police had been involved in the investigation and would "keep contributing all necessary resources for the continuity of the investigations of the crime and attempts to obstruct them."

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