‘I’m waiting for her to come back’: Marielle Franco’s fiancee on life a month after Rio councillor’s murder

It has been a month since the late-night knock at Mônica Benício’s door: a friend arriving to announce the love of her life was not coming home.

“I ran at her shouting: ‘Where’s Marielle? Where’s Marielle?’” the 32-year-old architect recalled.

“I screamed and I shouted. I smashed part of the house … None of it seemed real … It was like I was having a nightmare and would wake up at any moment. But as more and more friends arrived it became more and more real. More concrete. More desperate.”

Less than two miles away, Marielle Franco, a 38-year-old activist and rising political star known for defending Rio’s black, LGBT and favela communities, lay slumped on the backseat of a white Chevrolet having been shot in the head four times as she returned from a debate in downtown Rio.

Family photographs of Mônica Benício and her late partner, the Rio activist and politician Marielle Franco who was murdered on 14 March 2018

Mônica Benício, right, and her late partner, the Rio activist and politician Marielle Franco. Photograph: Family Photo

Benício pummeled her friend with questions: “Was it an attempted robbery? Are they taking her to the doctor’s? Can they help her?”

“No,” came the reply. “She was dead and there wasn’t … anything to be done.”

Weeks after the murder of the Rio councillor and her driver, Anderson Gomes, her partner perched on a sofa in their home in north Rio and sobs as she relived the events of 14 March. Next year – after a 14-year, on-off romance – the couple were to marry.

Symbols of the couple’s shared passion for activism and the arts pepper the airy lounge: murals of Frida Kahlo and Angela Davis; records by politically charged composers such as Chico Buarque and Mercedes Sosa and contemporary black artists like Marina Iris and her group ÉPreta; a portrait of Florestan Fernandes, a Brazilian sociologist who rose from poverty to write seminal works on race and democracy – issues central to Franco’s mission.

Franco’s killing has sparked an outpouring of reverence and revolt. Brazilian newspapers are filled with stories about her life; demonstrators have swarmed on to the streets to chant: “Marielle presente!” – Rio’s answer to “Je suis Charlie!”

“There are two Marielles: the one we are all out on the streets shouting is alive and the Marielle who is my companion and who I still haven’t managed to mourn,” said Benício. “I still haven’t accepted this has happened.”

At dawn on Saturday supporters will mark one month since Franco’s murder by decorating public squares with balloons, flowers and banners.

Yet Franco’s killers, who many suspect belong to the increasingly powerful paramilitary groups that control swaths of Rio, have yet to be caught. Authorities claim progress is being made but have said little about the state of their inquiry. “We are advancing, but under strict secrecy,” said Homero Freitas Filho, a public prosecutor on a taskforce pursuing the killers.

Franco’s murder has punctuated a dismal chapter in the contemporary history of this spectacular but troubled beach city.

Almost a decade ago, the then president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who last week began a prison sentence for a disputed corruption conviction, wept with joy after Rio was chosen to host the 2016 Olympics.

Since then, however, Brazil’s “Marvellous City” has tumbled into a whirlpool of overlapping crises – economic, political and security – from which it is struggling to emerge before October elections.

Marcelo Freixo (L), Rio de Janeiro state deputy for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) and the widow of the late activist Marielle Franco, Monica Tereza Benicio (R), attend a rally of Brazilian leftist parties at Circo Voador in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on April 02, 2018. The chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court urged calm and warned against violence Monday ahead of a ruling that could send former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to prison -- or give him a get-out-of-jail card. / AFP PHOTO / Mauro PimentelMAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images

Marcelo Freixo, left, Rio de Janeiro state deputy for the Socialism and Liberty party, and Mônica Benício attend a rally of Brazilian leftist parties in Rio de Janeiro on 2 April. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

“I knew this [city] government wouldn’t end well but I never imagined it would end so badly,” said Marcelo Freixo, a crusading MP from the leftist Socialism and Liberty party who was Franco’s political mentor and friend.

“The government is coming to an end with the former governor under arrest; the former president of the legislative assembly under arrest; the other president of the legislative assembly under arrest; the leader of the government under arrest; and the current governor waiting to be arrested. This is a very serious metastasis and has a real impact in people’s lives. There is no government.”

Grappling with a growing sense of crisis, many cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known, say they want out. Two recent polls found more than 70% would leave if they could because of the rising violence.

Benício, who met Franco in the colossal Maré favela where both women were raised, recalled teasing her about the wisdom of diving into this morass of political “filth”. But she said the seemingly endless reports of bloodshed and sleaze had fired up Franco, not discouraged her.

Franco was convinced Brazilian politics needed renewal: more black faces, more female faces, more LGBT faces, more favela faces, and – with Brazil mired in what some call the biggest corruption scandal in history – more honest faces.

In 2016, after years of grassroots activism, she ran for office with the slogan “I am because we are”.

Freixo, Franco’s boss since 2007, said he was thrilled by his protege’s move: “The world is crying out for Marielles.” Rio agreed, electing Franco with nearly 47,000 votes – the fifth-highest number received by a city councillor. At her swearing in on 1 January 2017 the young, black, gay, female, favela-born politician vowed to “oxygenate” Rio’s stale political scene.

Not everybody seems to have welcomed Franco’s triumph. Friends and relatives are convinced she was the victim of a political assassination, a theory authorities say they are aggressively pursuing.

“I don’t question at all that it was a political crime,” said Benício. “She was our only black female councillor – a black, lesbian woman from the favelas occupying a position of power that’s predominantly reserved for the white men who make up this ‘Brazilian elite’.”

Freixo, who has long lived under armed guard because of his fight against Rio’s mafia, agreed. “The only thing I don’t know is what politics lay behind it; who ordered it; what the motivation was and what the message was.”

He admitted police faced a devilishly complex investigation. “We know this case won’t be solved with the speed … our anguish demands. But I think it will be solved.”

Family photographs of Mônica Benício and her late partner, the Rio activist and politician Marielle Franco who was murdered on 14 March 2018

Mônica Benício and Marielle Franco. Photograph: Family Photo

Determined to keep Franco’s cause alive, Benício has thrown herself into public activism, addressing politicians in Brasília and taking to the stage with Lula and Katy Perry in Rio.

She said her first task, however, was simply surviving. For a fortnight after the crime, Benício said, she was unable to consume solid food. “Eating meant accepting I would have to go on.”

Benício said she clung to the memory of her final moments with Franco after a rare lunch together at her office.

“I gave her a quick kiss, got into the lift – and the last image I have,” she said, pausing to compose herself, “is of her stood there in the door, smiling and waving goodbye, and the lift door closing.”

The next time she set eyes on her partner was through a small glass window in Franco’s redwood coffin. “It didn’t look like her … Her face was a little swollen but there was nothing grotesque or morbid. It’s just that I couldn’t see my woman in that face … So I still can’t believe it.”

“I’m waiting for her to come back,” Benício admitted, her voice trembling. “Any time now.”

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