Two former police officers with links to a militia group have been arrested in the high-profile killing of a Brazilian human rights activist. The same militia may also have ties to the family of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, raising further questions.
Authorities have accused Ronnie Lessa, a former police sergeant and expert sniper, of shooting Marielle Franco, an activist and councilwoman who had been a vocal critic of the deployment of federal security forces to Rio de Janeiro’s poor districts. Élcio de Queiroz, a dismissed military police officer, allegedly acted as Lessa’s getaway driver, G1 Globo reported.
A later police raid of a Rio home linked to Lessa turned up 117 M-16 assault rifles. Investigators said that Lessa, who had been forced to retire from the police after being severely injured in a car bomb attack, was a contract killer and gunrunner for militia group “Escritório do Crime” (Office of Crime).
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President Bolsonaro and his family’s alleged ties to this militia once again surfaced in the wake of these arrests. Lessa had been living in the same luxury condominium building where Bolsonaro owns an apartment. Queiroz had also posted a picture of himself with the president on social media.
In January, it was reported that the Rio office of Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a state assemblyman, had employed the wife and mother of the criminal group’s founder, Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, a fugitive captain of the Special Operations Police Battalion (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais — BOPE). The women were on the office’s public payroll until November.
Flávio Bolsonaro said that he was unaware of the hiring of the fugitive policeman’s relatives, adding that their hiring was arranged by former aide.
The Escritório do Crime group was first linked to the murder of Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, in August. In November, authorities said that the militia was trying to interfere in the Franco investigation.
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The arrest of the two former police and the seizure of an arsenal of high-powered weaponry further add to suspicions that the state may have been involved in Franco’s killing.
Bolsonaro and his family have not been linked to the killing, and there is no indication that they had any knowledge about it. Yet the arrests further stoke critics’ suspicions that the president and his family have links to “Escritório do Crime,” even if those links are tenuous.
Militias such as the Escritório do Crime are often composed of former and current security officers, and these paramilitary-style groups exert control over drug trafficking and other criminal structures. The groups have also been accused of committing several murders in Rio and elsewhere.
Impunity is rampant for murders in Brazil, where five to eight percent of homicide cases are brought to justice.
But Franco’s popularity and commitment to social justice have led to her murder being used to pressure authorities to hold all involved accountable, including any intellectual authors. If the militia’s ties to the highest levels of power are confirmed, this is likely to open the floodgates to more sweeping revelations.