Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is in Washington to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday. While the trip officially is focused on the joint efforts of the U.S. and Brazil to change the government of Venezuela, it is being billed by the Bolsonaro government as a “restart” of his presidency and image after multiple, serious scandals crippled the first three months of his presidency.
But when it comes to recreating his image, the timing of this trip could hardly be worse. Key news events of the last several weeks — including the arrests of two former Rio de Janeiro police officers for the March 2018 assassination of Rio City Council Councilor Marielle Franco — have highlighted the most damaging and, to many, most terrifying revelations about Bolsonaro and his three politician sons: their extensive, direct, multilayered, and deeply personal ties to the paramilitary gangs and militias responsible for Brazil’s most horrific violence.
Watch our video report on the growing, multilevel, personal, and highly disturbing links between Bolsonaro and his family on the one hand, and the country’s most violent, lawless, and murderous paramilitary gangs on the other:
Just consider how, even before the arrests of Franco’s killers last week, so many deep ties had already emerged between Bolsonaro and his sons, who won office principally on an anti-crime and anti-corruption platform, and the paramilitary gangs composed of current and former military police officers and military members. Bolsonaro himself is a former army captain who served during Brazil’s military dictatorship and left in the 1980s amid allegations of misconduct; yet, even now as the president, he still has his friends and aides address him as “Captain.”
In January, the Rio de Janeiro police executed a full-scale raid against the city’s most dangerous militia, the one that houses within it the terrifying murder-for-hire team known as “the Crime Office.” That assassin team is composed of highly trained police officers who use their specialized knowledge of investigations and assassin skills to carry out murders with very little possibility of detection, and they have long been the leading suspects in Franco’s assassination, given how professional and frighteningly efficient that murder was carried out.
That raid led to a shocking revelation: Unbeknownst to the public, the mother and wife of Nóbrega — one of Brazil’s most notorious gangsters — were both receiving salaries from the state. That’s because both of them were formally employed by Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro’s oldest son, for the entire last decade as he served as a state representative in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature. When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president last November, Flávio moved up to the Federal Senate as a result of winning his election in Rio with a massive vote total.
Shortly after this highly incriminating connection was revealed, a dam collapsed in the interior of Brazil and tragically killed more than 200 people, understandably replacing news coverage of virtually all other events. That resulted in far less attention being paid to Flávio’s close connections to Nóbrega’s family than was deserved. So just reflect on that: Jair Bolsonaro’s son had on his official government payroll the mother and wife of one of the country’s most notorious and psychopathic paramilitary leaders, the fugitive chief of the militia responsible for the assassination of Marielle Franco, among countless other murders.
In February, Flávio’s direct and intimate ties to militias became even more glaring. Checks were found issued in the name of his campaign account signed by the sister of two twin-brother militia members, Alan and Alex Rodrigues de Oliveira, arrested in a large-scale police raid last August. Just months prior to the arrest of these two militia brothers, Flávio posted to his Instagram a photo of himself and his father, then a presidential candidate, at a birthday party for the two militia twins, congratulating them and heaping praise on the family.
In retrospect, that Flávio had such close personal connections to Rio’s militias that he put the mother and wife of its most notorious chief on his payroll should not have been surprising. As a state legislator, he twice bestowed on the top militia leaders, then police officers, formal awards and honors, praising them for their civil service to their communities.
Far worse, in 2011, Brazilian Judge Patricia Acioli, who, along with Brazil’s left-wing PSOL party, was overseeing a sweeping criminal investigation into militias and heroically sent numerous high-ranking police officers to prison, was brutally murdered outside her home, horrifying not just Brazil but the world. While all Brazilian politicians expressed horror and disgust at this brazen attack on the rule of law — showing that militias could just murder whoever they wanted, even judges sending their leaders to prison — Flávio posted a tweet that basically blamed her for her own murder, criticizing her for provoking the militias:
Jair Bolsonaro himself has a history of multiple ties to Brazil’s militias and several of its key leaders. He has twice, on the floor of the Congress, explicitly praised their death squads as good for the country’s security and crime problems. On one occasion, after various members of Congress from the northern region of Brazil warned of the growth of death squads and extrajudicial murders carried out by growing police-composed militias, Bolsonaro stood to explicitly praise them as crime-fighting patriots and declared them “welcome” in Rio de Janeiro.
Since then, those militias have taken over huge swaths of Brazil’s most critical cities, including Rio. A January investigation from The Intercept Brasil found that militias have virtually taken over the entire city.
In sum, the Bolsonaro movement has been fixated on Brazil’s crime epidemic, and anger over growing violence was arguably one of the two main factors in the rise of that movement (the other being anger over systemic political corruption). But when Bolsonaro and his family speak of crime, they almost always try to focus attention on the primarily black drug traffickers who live in the city’s poor favelas, and virtually never speak of the far more menacing, serious, and terrifying source of criminality carried out by the Bolsonaros’ ideological companions and heroes of the country’s sophisticated and skilled militias:
That Bolsonaro — despite how central his anti-crime posture is to his political popularity — is eager to praise, rather than condemn and combat, militias is not hard to understand. Those militias are ruled by his friends, neighbors, comrades, and closest associates.
The militia member who worked as Flávio’s driver for the last decade and whose large money movements — including one into the account of Jair Bolsonaro’s wife — triggered the first scandal of his presidency, ex-police Officer Fabrício Queiroz, is one of Bolsonaro’s oldest and closest friends. When police sought to question him about those money movements to the Bolsonaro family, he unsurprisingly went into hiding in the precise neighborhood, Rio das Pedras, most notorious for being commanded most thoroughly by Rio’s most violent militia.
When two of Franco’s killers were finally apprehended last week, just two days shy of the one-year anniversary of her assassination, nobody was surprised that they had both been members of Brazil’s military police. The extreme professionalism with which that murder was carried out, including the still-unexplained coincidence that numerous public security cameras on the path they chose to pursue her had been turned off in the days before the assassination, left no doubt that militias were responsible.
But almost immediately after the police announced the identity of the two assassins they arrested, ties to Bolsonaro emerged. The shooter himself, police Sgt. Ronnie Lessa, lives on the same street as Bolsonaro’s Rio house, in an exclusive gated community: an extreme coincidence given how massive and sprawling of a city Rio de Janeiro is. In other words, one of Franco’s assassins — the man who pumped four bullets into her head — turned out to be Bolsonaro’s neighbor, both of whom lived in close proximity in a very rich neighborhood despite working their entire adult lives on the public payroll.
Shortly thereafter, a photo emerged of Lessa and Bolsonaro together, posted to Lessa’s social media account. Police then confirmed that Bolsonaro’s 20-year-old son and Lessa’s daughter had been dating. While none of those facts are close to dispositive in terms of linking Bolsonaro to Franco’s murder, those are a lot of coincidental connections to have between a three-decade member of Congress and the current president of the Republic, on the one hand, and the murderers who pumped four bullets into the skull of one of Rio de Janeiro’s most prominent and inspiring left-wing politicians on the other.
As part of the police search of the assassins’ properties, the police apprehended the single largest collection of armaments in the history of Brazil’s democracy: 117 M-16 automatic rifles. Notably, they were apprehended not in the favelas on which the Bolsonaros obsessively fixate when talking about crime, but in a luxury condominium owned by a former police officer who is part of the militia that assassinated Franco and which has multiple ties to the Bolsonaro family:
Days later, the police — despite still not having apprehended the people who ordered and paid for Franco’s assassination — insinuated a political motive to her killers. Consistent with Bolsonaro’s denunciation of the sweeping investigation of militias led by Franco’s political mentor, Marcelo Freixo of the left-wing PSOL party (the same party of Jean Wyllys, the gay congressperson who last month fled Brazil and gave up his congressional term under highly specific death threats), reports emerged that Franco’s assassins were overt Bolsonaro supporters.
The police also indicated that they had seized the computers and other electronic devices of the two killers, and discovered that, subsequent to Franco’s assassination, the murderous militia pair had searched and monitored the movements of numerous human rights activists, left-wing journalists, and politicians (one of those specified by the police was my husband, David Miranda, now a congressperson from the same left-wing party as Freixo, Franco, and Wyllys).
All of this mounting evidence — most of which has been unearthed just in the 10 weeks since Bolsonaro’s January 1 inauguration — paints a deeply disturbing and dangerous picture. Brazil — the world’s fifth-largest country, with massive oil reserves and the world’s most critical environmental region in the Amazon that the current government wants to sell off to the highest industrial bidders — is in the hands of a family with multiple, close, and growing connections to the country’s most murderous, criminal, and sociopathic death squads and paramilitary forces.
As Bolsonaro meets Trump at the White House tomorrow, that meeting should be understood first and foremost within this context. Bolsonaro has quickly elevated himself to the top echelon of the world’s most thuggish, violent, and dangerous leaders. And given the stakes raised by Brazil — geopolitically, culturally, economically, environmentally, and militarily — this is clearly one of the most profoundly disturbing developments of the last year. Whatever else is true, the media focus on Bolsonaro’s presence in the White House should feature these facts prominently and centrally if the reporting is to accurately reflect who he is and what he represents.
First came the Never Trumpers, and I did not speak out, because they stood against Donald Trump. Then came the Lincoln Project, and I did not speak out, because their videos went viral. Then came the Chamber of Commerce, and by then it was too late.