• Carlos Munoz Burgos

Impunity in Latin America: Marielle Franco’s murder in Rio

Weak justice institutions lead to high impunity rates in Latin America. In this region, most crimes go unpunished, generating low levels of trust in the police and government institutions. In Central America’s Northern Triangle, the impunity rate is extremely high at 96 percent in Honduras, 97 percent in Guatemala, and 95 percent in El Salvador. People do not report crimes because they have little trust in the justice system and do not think that it punishes those guilty of crimes. Also, many individuals in Latin America perceive the police as highly corrupt and involved in criminal activity. According to a survey conducted by AmericasBarometer in 2010, more than 60 percent of people surveyed in Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Venezuela thought their police forces were involved in crime. Judges are also perceived to be inefficient, not well-trained (particularly in juvenile justice matters), underpaid, and corrupt. In some cases, judges work with corrupt government officials and drug cartels, worsening the population’s overall perception of their effectiveness and impartiality.

Although crimes go unpunished, there are also many individuals who are incarcerated for smaller crimes, but have not been sentenced. They spend years in prison without a fair trial or sentence. This overcrowds prisons and complicates any efforts to try to rehabilitate inmates. Additionally, those imprisoned for minor offenses are placed together with serious offenders who teach them how to become involved in organized crime. The lack of alternative justice measures, and the inefficiency or nonexistence of pretrial services to evaluate the level of danger that offenders pose further aggravates the problem. Since people know that the judicial system does not work, in many cases they resolve their disputes violently, also knowing that there will not be consequences for their actions. Criminals operate under the same logic, and the police do so too, leading to human rights abuses.

Along with other strategies and interventions at the societal level, law enforcement and an effective judicial system are necessary to reduce crime and violence. Criminals need to be caught, persecuted, and sentenced for their crimes. This, along with prevention, intervention/interdiction, and rehabilitation programs, can bring violence levels down.

Marielle Franco’s murder

Brazil is not immune to impunity. The largest economy in Latin America has a serious impunity problem, particularly with its police force. According to Amnesty International, Brazilian police are the most lethal in the world, and Rio’s are the deadliest in Brazil. Almost a month ago, a city council member was brutally murdered in Brazil. She was a black bisexual, feminist, LGTB and human rights activist from a poor background who was elected to office to fight social injustice. Franco frequently denounced police abuses against people living in marginalized communities that she represented.

Her murder was well-organized and conducted by apparently professional killers. The bullets used to kill her were stolen from a batch that was sold to federal police in 2006. Ammunition from this consignment was also used by rogue police officers in 2015 to kill 17 people in Sāo Paulo. It is still not clear who killed Franco, but people speculate it was the police or a group of off-duty and ex-police officers, and that her murder was linked to her activism, particularly her denouncing police abuses.

She brought hope for the most underrepresented in Brazil’s historically rich, white, and male political world. Her life was cut short at only 38 years old. It has been almost two months since she was killed on March 14, and the murder remains unsolved. If the police was involved in the murder, the likelihood that it will be resolved is slim.


With more than 60,000 homicides per year, Brazil’s impunity rate is 90 percent. In an effort to curb an upsurge in violent drug gang activity, President Michel Temer ordered the military to take control of public security in February 2018. Franco opposed this strategy, and in her last article sent to a newspaper hours before her killing, she stated that increased public security will not be achieved with more guns on the street.

Police reform is urgently needed in Brazil. Thousands of people protested Franco’s death on the streets, and the European Union condemned this murder. Hopefully, this will make Brazilian politicians consider a police reform or more inclusive policies for the poor; however, things seems to not have changed much in Brazil’s political atmosphere or in the dynamics of gang-controlled favelas.

Stree in Rio - Luah Tomas