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Three Rio officials arrested in connection with Marielle Franco killing

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RIO DE JANEIRO — For years, Brazil has asked the question, “Who ordered Marielle’s killing?”

Ever since the 2018 killing of the leftist politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco, in downtown Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians have plastered that question onto T-shirts, spray painted it onto walls and posted it on social media. The name Marielle became a rallying call for the left.

Now, six years after her assassination, police say they’re beginning to answer that question.

Brazilian federal police arrested three well-known and politically connected Rio de Janeiro officials Sunday morning, naming them suspects in Franco’s killing and providing a rare look at the connections human rights activists have long alleged between the city’s entrenched political elite and the criminal militias that now control a wide swath of this turbulent metropolis.

In an operation named “Murder, Inc.,” police arrested federal Rio congressman Chiquinho Brazão, Rio state auditor Domingos Brazão and a former city police chief, Rivaldo Barbosa. The former police official was also accused of deliberately undermining the investigation.

The men have not been formally charged, but police officials told The Washington Post that they suspect them of being the masterminds behind the killing and that they will be transferred Sunday afternoon to a maximum-security prison in the capital, Brasília.

Anielle Franco, sister to Marielle and Brazil’s minister of racial equality, cheered the arrests.

“Only God knows how long we have dreamed of this day,” she said. “Today is another large step toward being able to get an answer to the question we’ve asked these last years: ‘Who ordered Mari’s killing, and why?’”

An attorney for Domingos Brazão told Brazilian media Sunday morning that his client didn’t know Marielle Franco and denies having any role in her killing. Representatives for the other two suspects have not yet made any comments.

Before her killing, Franco was considered to be one of Brazil’s rising political stars. Raised in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Complexo da Maré, she was an answer to racial and gay rights activists who have long been denied a political voice in a country that has historically been led by conservative Brazilians of European descent.

Elected to the Rio de Janeiro city council in 2016, she proudly proclaimed her identity as gay and Black.

“I’m a woman, Black, a mother and raised in the Maré favela,” was how she described her political identity.

It is not yet clear what motive any of the suspected killers would have had to kill Franco, but her activism against police violence and militias was widely seen to have discomforted those who profited from the rise of militias in the city.

Within a year of Franco’s killing, two former military police officers were arrested and accused of pulling the trigger in her death.

Law enforcement officials announced a breakthrough in the case last week. One of the former military police officers, Ronnie Lessa, a feared militia leader on Rio’s west side, had accepted a plea bargain and had named the masterminds behind Franco’s killing.

A senior federal police official, speaking to The Post on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the case, said police were worried the names of the men would leak and they’d flee the country. So police launched a surprise operation Sunday morning.

The arrests plunged Brazil into another national reckoning over corruption and impunity, as commentators flooded social media with reactions to the arrests and leftist politicians applauded the operation.

“Justice!” wrote Guilherme Boulos, who is running for mayor in São Paulo. “Marielle Present!”

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