Brazilian councilwoman Marielle Franco, pictured a month before her killing

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Two police officers were arrested Tuesday in the killing of Rio city councilor and black gay rights activist Marielle Franco, prosecutors said, almost a year to the day after the brazen murder shocked Brazil.

Franco, 38, grew up in a slum and went on to become a charismatic defender of the poor and the LGBT community, and an outspoken critic of police brutality and racism.

She was slain in a drive-by shooting along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, in downtown Rio de Janeiro on the evening of March 14, 2018.

Her death triggered protests around the world and mass demonstrations in Brazil, but there had been little sign of progress in the murder investigation before Tuesday’s arrests.

Franco’s partner Monica Benicio told AFP the arrests were “a crucial step.”

“But on top of prison for these mercenary rats, someone has to answer the question: who ordered Marielle’s killing?” she said.

A sergeant in the military police, Ronnie Lessa, 48, was taken into custody on suspicion of being the shooter, the Rio prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

Slain Rio de Janeiro's councillor and activist Marielle Franco is remembered at a 2019 International Women's Day event in Sao Paulo, Brazil

He was arrested at his luxury seaside residence in an upscale Rio neighborhood.

Elcio Vieira de Queiroz, 46, who had been sacked from the military police, also was arrested in a pre-dawn operation that was broadcast live on television. Weapons and documents were recovered in the raid.

He is suspected of driving the vehicle that tracked Franco after she left a meeting with political activists. Lessa is alleged to have fired 13 shots into Franco’s car as they drove by.

- ‘A consolation’ -

“Two days before the anniversary of the death of my daughter, it is a consolation to know the police have arrested suspects. It was high time to get an answer,” Franco’s mother, Marinete Silva, told the G1 news site.

“Now we need to know who ordered it,” she added.

Franco was slain in a drive-by shooting along with her driver, Anderson Gomes, in downtown Rio de Janeiro

Prosecutors in a special organized crime unit say the shooting was meticulously planned over the course of three months, and there is no doubt that Franco was “summarily executed” because of her political activism and the causes that she defended.

The murder “was an attempt to silence all those movements that are growing: of black women, of the LGBT population – they wanted black women to abandon their fights, and for the LGBT population to withdraw,” Benicio told AFP last week during the Rio carnival festivities.

After Rio hosted the summer Olympics in 2016, violence increased between drug gangs as well as between these gangs and paramilitary police militia and security forces.

Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker and mentor of Franco, said Tuesday’s arrests were “a decisive step but the case has not yet been solved.”

- ‘Marielle present’ -

The conservative government of Michel Temer, President Jair Bolsonaro’s predecessor, had promised to make swift arrests and to bring to trial those responsible for the councilor’s killing, a pledge regarded with skepticism in a country where the vast majority of homicides go unpunished.

Franco's death triggered protests around the world, such as this one in Los Angeles on March 08, 2019

The investigation made little initial progress, to the frustration of human rights activists who have campaigned relentlessly to keep the case alive. Franco’s image can still be seen on walls around Rio de Janeiro, with the message “Marielle present.”

Justice Minister Sergio Moro said on Twitter he hoped the arrests would provide “greater clarity to this terrible crime so that those responsible face justice.”

But lawyer Walter Maierovitch told AFP that Tuesday’s arrests were nothing but “a smokescreen.”

For the anniversary of her death on Thursday, demonstrations have been planned around the country. Homage was paid to Franco during the Rio carnival by a samba school, Mangueira, which went on to be crowned champion of the parade.

Brazilian media meanwhile published pictures of Vieira de Queiroz allegedly alongside the far right Bolsonaro.

AFP’s fact-checking service was unable to ascertain for certain that Bolsonaro was the man in the picture next to Vieira de Queiroz but when pressed on the matter, the president said: “I have my photo taken with thousands of soldiers all over Brazil.”