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A woman holds a sign during a rally against the murder of Brazilian councilwoman and activist Marielle Franco, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 15, 2018.

MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images

Marielle Franco, a popular Rio city councillor who was a blunt critic of state-sponsored violence, was shot dead on Wednesday night in a killing that appeared to be politically motivated. It was a dramatic escalation of the crisis in Brazil’s second-largest city and raised fears of a surge of violence as criminal actors jockey for position after a military takeover of security here.

Ms. Franco’s driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, was also killed when a car pulled up next to theirs at a downtown intersection and someone shot nine bullets into the car, five of which reportedly hit Ms. Franco in the head. A second passenger, an aide to Ms. Franco, survived and has been put under police witness protection.

Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called it a “brutal assassination” and the state Public Security Secretary, Richard Nunes, said in a statement there will be “a full investigation of the assassination.” President Michel Temer offered the help of the federal police, but Rio police rejected the idea and said they would manage the investigation.

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Thousands took to the streets of Brazil’s largest cities on Thursday night to protest the execution-style murder of a popular Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman. Reuters

But enraged colleagues and admirers of Ms. Franco are saying state police should not have responsibility for investigating the crime, given the realistic possibility that some may have ties to her killing.

Ms. Franco, 38, was a black, gay woman from Mare, one of the city‘s most violent favelas, who became a human-rights activist and earned thousands of votes in her first campaign for city hall, where she used the slogan “Marielle presente” – saying, essentially, “I’m here,” standing up for those who are often voiceless here. She was a rare figure in a country where white men from a traditional elite still predominate in politics.

On Feb. 16, the Temer government handed control of public security in Rio to the military, the first such move since the end of the dictatorship here in 1985, ostensibly to control a spike in violence. Ms. Franco headed the city’s observer commission on the military occupation and was a long-time critic of police brutality in favelas and other poor communities.

Sandro Araujo, a city councillor in Rio’s twin city of Niteroi who is a federal police officer and an expert on public security, said Ms. Franco’s killing had all the signs of an execution carried out by a militia – one of the criminal organizations made up primarily of active-duty and retired police officers, former soldiers and prison guards, which control vast swaths of Rio, extorting the population and operating with impunity. He said it was reminiscent of the attack on Patricia Acioli, a Rio state judge investigating militias who was murdered by active-duty police in 2011.

“The fact that Marielle was exposing people and she had a loud voice, especially in the media, makes me think she was silenced by these criminals in a uniform,” he said. “This was a clear demonstration of power against whoever makes them vulnerable, whoever exposes them.”

Samira Bueno, director of the Brazil Forum on Public Security, called her death a political killing, something rare here in recent years, aimed at stifling the most powerful voice of the favelas. “It’s a very frightening moment for the city and the country,” she said. “All the criminal groups are reorganizing because of this federal intervention. And when they kill politicians and judges and people who represent the state, we know things are changing really fast.”

Condemning Ms. Franco’s killing on Thursday, Mr. Temer said it was an example of the lawlessness the military intervention would help control. Critics including Ms. Franco have said the intervention was made with an eye to wooing middle-class voters ahead of the national elections in October.

The military intervention has put the police under new scrutiny; the general in charge of Rio’s security said one of his key goals was to end corruption in the police force. But so far all military attention has focused on favelas under the control of narco-traffickers, not militia areas. Mr. Araujo said there was little possibility the militia would be investigated. “They’re an open wound exposing the disease in our society,” he said.

Ms. Franco, who leaves her partner and 19-year-old daughter, was buried onThursday afternoon as thousands of people gathered in front of City Hall to mourn her. Many carried signs reading “Marielle Presente” – her slogan repurposed as a message that her work would not end with her death. At nightfall, thousands more joined them for a march through the centre of the city; there was also a huge march in Sao Paulo, and demonstrations in other cities throughout the country.

“The death of Marielle will consolidate a moment that has coalescing for a long time, of people saying they will not tolerate this violence,” Ms. Bueno predicted. She used a colloquial phrase – a favela vai descer – meaning residents on poor and violent hilltop communities who are rarely heard from would descend to the city to demonstrate their frustration.

“They are not accepting any more all this violence – because if it’s not the violence from the Comando Vermelho [one of the city’s main drug gangs] or the other factions, it’s the violence from the state or the army – and now, one of the only representatives they have in politics was murdered like this. I think we will have some bad moments in the future.”

With a report from Elisângela Mendonça

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