Late last Thursday, a forty-seven year old mother of three was arriving home from work to her family in Niterói. Her car was approached by men on motorcycles, who fired on her, spraying the vehicle with 21 bullets. She was killed instantly.
But this was not a random act of violence in Rio. The victim was a powerful judge, known for her tough style and 60 convictions of policemen with ties to militias and death squads. She had also convicted some of the most hardened criminals in the São Gonçalo region, including local mafia chiefs and gambling bosses. Her name was found on a hit list, and she'd been threatened frequently before; she had official protection for years. Reports vary about why she didn't have a security detail the night of the attack; members of her family have said she requested one recently, but was denied; another report says she gave up security when she started dating her boyfriend, a military police officer, in 2007.
Initial reports show that the bullets at the crime scene came from weapons typically used by civil and military police, as well as guns issued exclusively to the Brazilian army. A state congressman, Flávio Bolsonaro, from the Bolsonaro clan and a close ally of military police, issued several statements on Twitter after the murder, claiming that the judge was known for "gratuitously humiliating defendants" and for calling policemen names in her courtroom.
It seems apparent that the judge was a target of militia and mafia groups, but finding her killers may not be easy. After the news broke, the Minister of Justice announced the Federal Police, Brazil's equivalent of the FBI, would be investigating the case. But later in the day, the Rio de Janeiro Security Secretariat announced that the case would be handled "exclusively" by local civil police. It's unclear why the state government rebuffed the federal government's offer, but it doesn't necessarily look good. Judge Acioli's family expressed dismay with the decision, and are hoping for a federal investigation. An outside investigation could find more connections between police and militias, and could potentially trace the murder back to even higher levels. A local investigation, on the other hand, may not yield the same results.
Such a brazen attack on a high-level government official isn't just a blow to impunity in an already beleaguered justice system. It appears to be a warning to judges, law enforcement, and lawmakers alike that anyone who takes on militias and organized crime is at risk, and that no one will be immune. It will not only be important to see how the investigation plays out, but also how the criminal justice system will continue to handle arrests and convictions of police connected to militias and the mafia. It's the same challenge Sérgio Cabral's government has been striving for in its multi-faceted public security campaign: proving that the state - not paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, or organized crime - is really in control.