Journalism from the center of the world

A gay Black woman raised in a favela in Rio, Marielle symbolizes forces that have emerged in Brazil this century and now dispute the centers of power. Photo: Mateus Bonomi/AGIF/Folhapress

“Whoever owns the land owns the man.” This declaration by abolitionist André Rebouças (1838-1898) was remembered on social media platforms by Silvio Almeida, Brazilian minister of Human Rights and Citizenship, when the men suspected of ordering the assassination of Marielle Franco were finally named and arrested. Reflecting the reality of Brazil at the time of the Empire, Rebouças’s words still hold true and even reinvigorated today. And they are crucial to understanding why the question “Who ordered Marielle killed and why?” has haunted Brazil for more than six years. It wasn’t until March 24, on a Sunday, exactly 2,202 days after her murder, that the Federal Police arrested the brothers Domingos Brazão, a councillor of the Rio de Janeiro State Audit Court, and Chiquinho Brazão, a federal deputy affiliated with Brazil Union until the party threw him out following his detention. Both men are accused of instigating the crime. Likewise arrested was Rivaldo Barbosa, Rio de Janeiro police commissioner at the time of the killing. Barbosa is the alleged mastermind behind the murder plot and also said to be responsible for obstructing investigations.

The motive for the execution: as a city councilwoman, Marielle was hampering illegal land appropriations in Rio de Janeiro, pointed to as one of the businesses of the Brazão family and the paramilitary groups currently dominating vast portions of the territory. In Brazil’s most iconic city, Marielle died for the same reason that a long, and mounting, list of Amazon leaders has been executed, including Chico Mendes ( 1944-1988) and Dorothy Stang (1931-2005).

Who the land belongs to and what it is intended for are questions entwined with the very foundation of Brazil, and they have persisted across more than five centuries of genocide and devastating destruction of nature. With the rise of the far right, represented in Brazil by Bolsonarism, the dispute finds expression today in even more radical form. The tangled web concealing those implicated in Marielle’s murder has only begun to be unraveled. Hopefully, there will be enough political courage to delve deep into the bowels of this crime, which exposes the bowels of a country.

Grilagem—land grabbing—is a word that was coined in Brazil to define the crime that inaugurated this nation and that continues to define the destruction of such biomes as the Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest, and Pampa. The term was born from a version of land theft so unique that many translators and scholars prefer to maintain the Portuguese word. In the past, these criminals would put a counterfeit deed in a box along with a few crickets—grilos—so the paper would become yellow-stained and riddled with tiny holes, giving it the appearance of an aged document. With the well-paid complicity of the owners of notary public offices—the backbone of Brazil’s bureaucracy—something fake acquired a first layer of legitimacy. Thus began the crime of stealing public land for private ownership and profit.

As years went by, and the Internet appeared, the land theft scheme known as grilagem grew increasingly sophisticated. Today, for example, as SUMAÚMA has shown, there are notorious land-grabbers engaging in carbon market projects and passing themselves off as “green”—writing a new chapter in encroachment on the forest.

Legislation can constitute a decisive turning point for grilagem schemes: the moment when “land tenure regularization” is employed as a devious justification for the legalization of public lands appropriated by criminals. This includes draft bills presented and approved by city councils, state legislatures, and Congress, in the case of municipal, state, and federal public lands, respectively. In the federal sphere, two such bills were approved this century alone, dubbed Land Grabbing Bills by environmentalists, one during the second term of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party) and the other under Michel Temer (Brazilian Democratic Movement). Bolsonaro tried to push through a bill that would take the legal recognition of stolen land to astonishing new heights, especially in the Amazon, but his effort met with failure.

With broad ties to Brazil’s elites, grilagem entails a multi-level network of agents expediently infiltrated into the three branches of government, legislative, judicial, and executive. These agents are so deeply embedded that in many cases it is hard, or perhaps impossible, to separate the criminal network from the State itself. Through criminal magic, stolen land is transformed into private allotments, in the case of cities, or into ranches and farms in the case of biomes and rural areas. And land thieves, or grileiros, are transformed from criminals into entrepreneurs in urban areas and into rural landholders, or “sons of the soil” and representatives of agribusiness, in regions like the Amazon.

It is worth noting that the men arrested for the execution of Marielle, the killing of her driver Anderson Gomes, and the attempted murder of her then aide Fernanda Chaves are a councillor of the Rio de Janeiro State Audit Court, a federal deputy, and a police officer from the top echelons of public security. It is also worth remembering the fact, which may or may not be connected, that Rivaldo Barbosa took over the top job in the Rio de Janeiro civil police force one day before the crime. At the time, the state of Rio de Janeiro was under federal intervention, headed by General Walter Braga Netto, who would later serve as Chief of Staff and then as defense minister under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party)—and, in 2022, as vice-presidential candidate on Bolsonaro’s ticket when he ran for re-election. Currently under investigation for his participation in the attempted coup of January 8, 2023, which sought to impede the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and keep Bolsonaro in power, Braga Netto released a note pointing to General Richard Nunes as the person responsible for appointing Rivaldo Barbosa police commissioner. Nunes has confirmed this.

The expansion of urban militias

Conventional wisdom generally associates grilagem more closely with regions that urban populations in the southern part of Brazil consider remote, such as the Amazon. But starting this century, researchers have warned of the growth of what they call “militia urbanism” in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This trend involves paramilitary groups that have ties to armed criminal organizations and are partly composed of former civil and military police officers and firefighters, along with some still on active duty. They work in collusion with elected representatives and civil servants from the State bureaucracy to control and exploit favelas and poor communities, steal public land, and hold sway over city management.

Left to right: Chiquinho and Domingos Brazão, suspected of ordering the deaths, and police officer Rivaldo Barbosa, alleged mastermind of the crime. Photo: Pedro Ladeira/Folhapress

As a councilwoman for the left-leaning Socialism and Liberty Party, Marielle opposed moves to legally recognize ownership of stolen public areas and therefore represented an obstacle for grileiros and militiamen operating in west Rio de Janeiro. In the election that made her a city councillor, she garnered the fifth highest number of votes, while Chiquinho Brazão saw his own share dwindle.

In an article published in Folha de S. Paulo, a group of renowned urban planners, including Raquel Rolnik, professor at the University of São Paulo’s School of Architecture and Urban Design and coordinator of the research laboratory LabCidade, drew attention to militia urbanism, warning that the phenomenon has been flourishing and professionalizing this century:

“Businesses that involve the production of the city, especially land appropriation, real estate markets, land tenure regularization, and the provision of urban services and facilities, is strategic to the expansion and maintenance of this perverse political system. A slice of the city council has relations with this market and even participates in the sector as businesspeople. They ultimately pass laws that effectively broaden and support criminal practices, giving legal cover to processes of public land appropriation and denying the social function of property while also degrading the environment.”

“More than a source of income,” the article continues, “this is a political commodity that allows improvements in the territory—land tenure regularization, infrastructure works, housing developments—to be used to expand political-electoral dominance and territorial and population control, in some cases by armed groups. For this reason, it has become a central matter in the work of city councils, which regulate the issue and direct public investments.”

Marielle’s body was pierced by bullets because she and her political party dared to oppose this highly lucrative business that is entrenched in State institutions. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that the individual who dared to challenge Rio de Janeiro’s land thieves and their criminal connections was a gay Black woman from a favela—a representative of the emerging voices that in recent years have left the margins to occupy the center.

Chico Mendes and Dorothy Stang, killed for fighting against land grabbing. In the center, an area affected by deforestation in Pará. Photos: Antonio Scorza/AFP, Pedro Ladeira/Folhapress and CPT/Anapu

Every year, municipal elections play a strategic role for the power groups in charge of the land theft business. In much of the Amazon, their representatives dominate municipal legislatures and city halls, and they are also in control in most states. The Brazilian Congress is rife with grileiros and grilagem bosses who pose as representatives of agribusiness. The land theft scheme links the far reaches of Brazil’s map, because the fight over the lands the Portuguese stole from the Indigenous in 1500 isn’t over—as the perverse thesis called the “historic cut-off point” has just shown. According to this argument, only those Indigenous peoples who were on their ancestral lands on October 5, 1988—the date Brazil’s newest Constitution was enacted—would have a right to these lands, which disregards the fact that many peoples were forced to abandon their territories to save their own lives or were driven out by invaders.

The future condemned

A new and decisive element is at play, however. What was once largely a curiosity, a kind of contemporary Far West, for those who saw Brazil from Europe, has become a central issue since global heating and the brutal loss of biodiversity began threatening human survival on the planet. Grilagem carves out space and is connected to ventures that not only violate the social function of land—they violate Earth itself. And this concerns all of humanity.

According to a witness testifying before the Federal Police, Marielle opposed Chiquinho Brazão’s bill because it didn’t “serve needy areas but regions of the middle and upper classes.” The conflicts that have already killed 553 people in the Amazon this century, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, also have their roots in a clash between those who want land for many to live on and those who want land for a few to profit from. Conflicts turned to massacres, with land thieves and their militias of gunmen issuing threats, burning down homes and schools, and driving out and murdering the leaders of small-hold farmer occupations and settlements, often with police involvement. When a grileiro dies, it is because of a dispute between peers.

Some Brazilian environmentalists consider small-hold farmers to be forest invaders, which is a dangerous misconception. Family farmers are in the forest to stay. Their settlements must be recognized and supported, as long as their residents commit to the principles of agroecology and pesticide-free farming. If nothing is done, these farmers—who stand up to the grileiros with their very bodies, often without the support of socioenvironmental organizations and ignored by the State—will have only one alternative left: to join forces with the grileiros or organized crime factions now advancing furiously across the Amazon.

When right-wing extremists like Bolsonaro claim the Indigenous just want to become “landowners,” it is because they too are worried about who gets the land. So the land ceases to be a living being and instead becomes a commodity that can be appropriated by grileiros and militiamen to then be depleted and commercialized. Seduced by material goods and consumption, some Indigenous leaders and traditional communities have allowed themselves to be coopted by grilagem, the timber trade, and illegal gold mining, shifting their own understanding of the world.

Without land reform and the demarcation of Indigenous lands, there will be no standing forest—and without respecting the social function of housing in cities, paramilitary groups will continue to advance and control ever larger portions of territories. This will be a major issue during this year’s municipal elections. Until society evicts grileiros and militiamen from the State structure, clans like the Brazãos will continue to hijack Brazil. And more leaders like Marielle Franco, Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang, and thousands of others who have died in anonymity will fall.

Whether in Rio de Janeiro or Pará, the big dispute involves who has dominion over nature, who the land belongs to, and what purpose these territories will serve. Land for private property that will profit a rich, predatory minority—or a home to be shared in the name of life for all the planet’s inhabitants?

This is the dilemma that will define the quality of children’s lives. May the image of Marielle, viciously snatched from the territory of emotional bonds, remind us where the center of the struggle lies. And convince those who are still sitting around waiting for a miracle to rise up and resist.

Marielle, present!

Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Diane Whitty
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Editorial workflow: Viviane Zandonadi
Editor-in-chief: Talita Bedinelli
Editorial director: Eliane Brum

Marielle Franco faces a corridor of military police during a protest outside the Rio municipal chambers, in 2017. Photo: Bárbara Dias/Zimel Press/Folhapress

© All rights reserved. Written authorization must be obtained from SUMAÚMA before reproducing the content of this page on any channel of communication