Rio Police Chief Arrested for Killing Marielle Franco

Slain Rio de Janeiro City Councilwoman Marielle Franco (left) with her wife Mônica Benício (Photo: Mônica Benício)

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRASIL – At 5 A.M. on Palm Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, the former Chief of Rio de Janeiro Civil Police Rivaldo Barbosa, Brazilian Congressman Chiquinho Brazão, and his brother, Rio state auditor general Domingos Brazão, were all arrested by Brazilian federal police for plotting to assassinate Rio City Councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes in 2018. 

Just days after the murder, Barbosa told reporters, “We will not rest while this crime is not solved,” but now Barbosa stands accused of being one of the murderers himself. 

The head of Rio’s homicide investigation unit, Giniton Lages, was also forced into house arrest after it was revealed that he was accused of illegally obstructing investigations into the assassination of Marielle Franco. 

Lages wrote a best-selling book on his investigation into Marielle Franco’s assassination. In high-profile interviews, Lages had previously sought to portray himself as determined to seek the truth about who killed Marielle. 

The news of the arrests sent shockwaves through Rio de Janeiro on one of the year’s holiest days, Palm Sunday. The arrests came after Brazil’s Minister of Justice announced this week that the gunman Ronnie Lessa was cooperating with authorities and they had accepted a plea deal.

As news of the arrests was made public, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Flávio Dino, the longtime Communist party leader whom Lula had previously tapped to take over the investigation as Justice Minister when he took office in 2022, tweeted a line from Psalm 92.

“Though the wicked flourish like the grass, and the workers of wickedness flourish, they are destined for eternal loss,” tweeted Dino. “Like a palm tree, the righteous will flourish, they will rise like a cedar of Lebanon.”

In 2019, two former Brazilian military policemen, Ronnie Lessa and Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, were arrested for killing Rio City Councilwoman Marielle Franco. 

However, for over five years, activists have found themselves frustrated in seeking answers to who ordered the assassination of Marielle Franco. Activists even took to wearing t-shirts and holding signs with the simple question, “Quem Mandou Matar Marielle” (Who Sent Them to Kill Marielle). 

Now, with the arrest of Rio de Janeiro’s ex-Chief of Police Rivaldo Barbosa and the head of the homicide department Ginito Lages, it became clear why activists were unable to get these answers until Lula took over the investigation at the federal level following his election in 2022. 

“The Civil Police were not only flawed but complicit in this crime,” Marielle’s widow, Rio City Councilwoman Mônica Benício, wrote on Instagram. 

Three weeks before Marielle Franco was assassinated, she had been appointed to head a Rio de Janeiro city commission investigating the 2018 military takeover of the Rio de Janeiro police.  

During the 2018 military takeover of the Rio civilian police, military police officers replaced civilian police chiefs, and 8,500 army soldiers were deployed to battle drug gangs in Rio, resulting in a 40% increase in killings by the police. 

As part of the military takeover, 8,500 army soldiers were deployed to streets in Rio de Janeiro, resulting in a 40% increase in police killings. A record 1,500 people were killed by the police in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, the year that the military was in charge of Rio.

As part of the takeover, General Braga Neto, Bolsonaro’s right-hand man, appointed Rivaldo head of the civil police in Rio de Janeiro. 

The military and civil police were accused by Marielle Franco of working closely with paramilitary gangs. Paramilitary gangs run by former police officers run protection rackets, own large apartment buildings, and often engage in drug dealing themselves.

The Brazão brothers, who were closely linked to paramilitary gangs in Rio de Janeiro, had long been suspected of murdering Marielle Franco. As a Rio City Councilwoman, Franco had been investigating how Brazáo, who earned the nickname “King of Jacarepagua,” used his ties to paramilitary gangs to increase his political influence and grow his business as a major developer in Jacarepagua, a large suburb of Rio. 

However, Mônica Benício said she was shocked to learn that Rivaldo Barbosa, the former Police Chief of Rio de Janeiro, had conspired to kill Marielle Franco. She said that Barbosa had met with the day after Marielle’s assassination and pledged that he would catch Marielle’s killer.

“Rivaldo, who received our families shortly after Marielle and Anderson were murdered, with the cynical smile that only the most corrupt of bureaucracies can produce, telling us that the case would be a top priority to be resolved as quickly as possible,” wrote Benício on Instagram. “His name involved in this brutal execution only demonstrates the size of the abyss we live in in the State of Rio de Janeiro, with institutions widely compromised in the most rotten webs of crime, corruption and the death market.” 

Rivaldo’s arrest raised additional questions about the role that Bolsonaro and his allies had played in the assassination of Marielle Franco. 

He had been appointed Chief of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police just a day before the assassination by General Walter Braga Neto, who was overseeing the Rio Civil Police as part of federal intervention. Neto previously served as Defense Minister under Bolsonaro and was Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate in the 2022 presidential election. 

Currently, Neto is under investigation for helping plot a coup with Bolsonaro and is considered Bolsonaro’s right-hand man.

Neto’s appointment of Rivaldo as Civil Police Chief a day before the assassination of Marielle Franco raises serious questions about what role Bolsonaro may have played in the assassination. 

Bolsonaro and the gunman Lessa were known to socialize together – they lived in the same apartment complex, and their children had even dated. Several family members of people involved in the conspiracy were also employed by Bolsonaro’s son, Rio City Councilman Carlos Bolsonaro. 

Mônica Benício and Agatha Arnaus, the widow of Marielle’s slain driver, Anderson Gomes, said in a joint statement that while they were glad that the Brazão brothers and Rivaldo had been arrested, there was still much that needed to be investigated about the assassination. 

“There is a fight ahead, and we will be stronger and stronger to face it,” the widows said in a joint statement released today on Palm Sunday in Rio de Janeiro. Today, democracy wins. Today, Marielle and Anderson begin to have justice for their lives taken. We will not rest until justice is fully served—for Marielle and Anderson, for our families, for Brazil’s democracy.”

(Watch our full interview with Mônica Benício from earlier this month)

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]