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Shooting of Rio Councilor Deepens Fears Over Use of Army to Control Violence

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/17/2018 Samantha Pearson, Luciana Magalhaes

SÃO PAULO, Brazil—The killing of a Rio de Janeiro activist and critic of police abuses has caused angry outbursts across Brazil and deepened concerns over President Michel Temer’s use of the army to control violence, ahead of national elections in October.

Marielle Franco, a Rio city councilwoman and a prominent defender of Afro-Brazilians, was shot dead in her car Wednesday night along with her driver, in what human-rights groups fear was a politically motivated execution in retaliation for her criticism of police violence.

Her death threatens to become a rallying point for protests over violence and racial inequality in Brazil ahead of the presidential elections, exacerbating the Latin American nation’s volatile political situation.

“It was a brazen act, a planned crime, against a member of the legislature, a councilwoman with a thunderous vote, a crime in full view of all, defying democratic institutions,” said André Luis Machado de Castro, the top public defender in Rio state.

Mr. Temer’s move a month ago to place the military in charge of public security in Rio has exacerbated anger about police brutality and the excessive use of force in the slums, said Silvio Cascione at political-risk advisory firm Eurasia Group. It has also given the country’s fragmented leftist parties a potentially powerful unifying theme, he added.

The president’s decree was in response to increasingly frequent shootouts and robberies in the city of Rio, which saw 2,125 violent deaths in 2017, a 37% increase since 2014. While Brazil’s wealthier, and typically whiter, citizens largely support a tougher approach to crime, the victims of excessive police force are typically the poorer black inhabitants who have struggled to speak out, experts say.

Ms. Franco, a 38-year-old rising star of Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party, had been one of the most vocal critics of the rise in killings by the police, of which 154 occurred in January in Rio state, a 57% increase over the same month in 2017, according to official data.

After her death, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets of the major cities Thursday night and planned further acts, calling for an end to the high number of killings by the police.

a view of a city © Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

“While the demonstrations were clearly nonpartisan, with widespread support from mainstream media, they struck a chord with leftist parties, which have been questioning the intervention and are longtime critics of Brazil’s trigger-happy police culture,” Eurasia Group’s Mr. Cascione said.

Ms. Franco—a black, single mother born in one of Rio’s largest favelas—was heading home after attending a black-women empowerment event in downtown Rio when her car was attacked. She was the 40th local politician to be killed across Brazil since the beginning of 2017, according to a study by Brazil’s Globo news website published Saturday, which tracked the deaths of councilors and ex-councilors as well as mayors and ex-mayors.

“A person shot her directly in the head through the car’s tinted windows,” said one person close to the investigation. “They knew exactly where to shoot to get her head, they shot to kill.”

Ms. Franco was popular with many left-wing Brazilians, running for public office for the first time in 2016 and shocking much of the city’s political class with her landslide victory.

Her death comes at a critical moment for Brazil’s leftist parties, which are struggling to mount an opposition to a growing number of centre-right and socially conservative candidates ahead of October’s elections, said Rafael Alcadipani, an academic at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers’ Party remain the left’s strongest contenders, but the working-class icon is widely expected to be banned from running or even jailed after his recent conviction for corruption in relation to the country’s “Car Wash” bribery and kickback scandal.

“Brazil’s left has been placed on the defensive because of what happened to Lula—but Marielle’s death may be the cause that brings them back to the streets,” Mr. Alcadipani said.

Federal and Rio state police said they are investigating the deaths of Ms. Franco and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Raul Jungmann, who heads the federal government’s Public Security Ministry, said Friday that police were trying to discover the origin of the bullets used, which he believes may have been stolen several years back from a shipment destined for police forces in Brazil’s capital city Brasília.

Groups that monitor alleged police abuses—including extrajudicial killings by police, which in Brazil are among the world’s highest, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council—called on authorities to immediately and transparently investigate the case.

“It looks very, very bad given the context, given who she was and how outspoken she was,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch in New York. “One of the concerns now is whether there will be a serious investigation.”

In the city of Rio, people see the attack on Ms. Franco as “a crime against the democratic institutions of this state,” said Mr. de Castro, the public defender. “This naturally creates a very fragile situation for everyone who works in the human-rights movement in Rio de Janeiro.”

Just a day before her death, Ms. Franco had lamented the slaying of a young man, possibly at the hands of police, as he was leaving church. “How many more need to die for this war to be over?” she said on her official Twitter account.

Security experts and human rights activists warn that the military intervention in Rio state could lead to greater human-rights abuses, citing the sharp increases in violence in Mexico, Venezuela and other countries as a result of such tactics.

“It’s been a disaster in the past and is likely to be a disaster now,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com

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