Brazil’s Federal Police carried out a pair of operations on consecutive days this week targeting political opponents and allies of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. The operations raised questions surrounding mounting evidence that the Brazilian equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations — the agency at the center of a recent, dramatic power struggle in the Bolsonaro administration — is being leveraged for political purposes, deepening the crises enveloping the country’s democratic institutions.
On Tuesday, in an ostentatious raid, Federal Police simultaneously knocked at the door of the official residence of the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, and 11 other locales. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Police alleged that Witzel ran a group that may have defrauded and embezzled money intended for field hospitals to fight the coronavirus pandemic in Rio. Witzel’s mobile phone and personal computer were seized.
The operations raised questions about the Federal Police being leveraged for political purposes, deepening the crises enveloping the country’s democratic institutions.
The suspicions were not without justification. The likely fraud was exposed by the reporting of an independent journalist; a higher court authorized the police raids; and the field hospitals are still not functioning at full capacity even after almost three months of the Covid-19 crisis in Brazil.
Yet the raid raised eyebrows: Witzel has become one of Bolsonaro’s two main conservative rivals on the national stage. What’s more, Bolsonaro is being investigated by the Supreme Court for political interference in the command of the very same Federal Police force that targeted Witzel — an allegation made by the president’s former justice minister, Sergio Moro, who resigned as a result of the row.
A day after questions arose about political influence on law enforcement following the raid on Witzel, the Federal Police, on orders from the Supreme Court, turned on Bolsonaro’s allies. The court had opened a controversial inquiry to investigate “fake news” about the court itself, setting up Federal Police actions against bloggers, social media influencers, and businessmen tied to Bolsonaro. While no one was arrested, the suspects’ banking and telecommunications confidentiality were lifted. The case will also involve politicians close to Bolsonaro testifying in court.
Allegations around the Federal Police kicked into high gear in late April when Sergio Moro, then B0lsonaro’s minister of justice, claimed that the president sought an inappropriate level of control over the work of the Federal Police.
Moro was, in some ways, an unlikely high-profile Bolsonaro adversary. The former judge became a national celebrity in April 2018 when he sent former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to prison as part of Operation Car Wash, a sweeping anti-corruption probe. Seven months later, Moro accepted Bolsonaro’s invitation to serve as justice minister and became one of the cornerstones of the far-right president’s administration. In 2019, The Intercept published a series of reports in Portuguese and English that cast light on the Operation Car Wash’s methods and political biases.
In April, Moro resigned amid claims that Bolsonaro wanted him to replace the Federal Police’s commander, creating a political furor. Moro said the president’s aims were political: Bolsonaro wanted to protect his sons and political allies, who are the targets of various police investigations. In the statement announcing his resignation, which was broadcast live on major news networks, Moro blamed Bolsonaro’s pressure for his decision. His words prompted an investigation at the Supreme Court.
In response to demands for evidence, Moro mentioned a ministerial meeting that took place days before his resignation and was recorded on video. The recording shocked Brazil when made public by the Supreme Court. Amid swearing and shouting — mostly by Bolsonaro himself — ministers in the meeting demanded the arrests of Supreme Court judges, governors, and mayors who were seen as obstacles to the administration. There was even mention of using the distraction caused by the coronavirus to push forward measures aimed at dismantling the legal framework that protects the Amazon and other natural resources.
Yet Bolsonaro stole the show. Among insults aimed at his political opponents — namely, Witzel and São Paulo governor, João Doria — he blurted out that Brazilians should be armed, ordered Moro to sign a decree increasing the allowed ammunition purchase limits as “a message to these pieces of shit,” referring to the governors and mayors. The decree was issued the following day.
Perhaps most notably, Bolsonaro was clear about his intentions for the Federal Police. He complained about the poor quality of the government’s intelligence reports and his personal security. The president didn’t specifically mention the police force, but it wasn’t necessary. “I will interfere,” he said, glaring in Moro’s direction. “That’s it.”
With Moro out of the way, Bolsonaro went on to quickly change the Federal Police command. At first, he appointed an officer who attended parties held by one of his sons, Carlos Bolsonaro, who is being investigated in the fake news inquiry. Bolsonaro even publicly declared that his nominee was a personal friend. But the Supreme Court blocked the appointment, claiming it would do damage to the independence of the Federal Police. Upset by the decision, Bolsonaro initially signaled he would ignore the court, but eventually relented and appointed Rolando Alexandre de Souza, another police officer close to his administration.
As soon as Souza took over, he made changes to the regional command of the Federal Police’s Rio division. The moves could bring a measure of relief to the president. His eldest son, Flávio Bolsonaro, a Senator since 2018, is under investigation by the local and Federal Police in Rio for wage theft against his State Congress staff, as well as using the funds in schemes involving organized crime.
According to Moro’s testimony in the Supreme Court investigation, it was the same Rio division of the Federal Police investigating Flávio Bolsonaro that the president sought control over. “You control all the commands,” Bolsonaro told Moro, according to the former justice minister’s testimony. “I only want one, which is Rio’s.”
The new commander of the federal police in Rio took office on Monday, May 25. On Tuesday, the police raid showed up at Witzel’s front door. Witzel, a former judge who is new to politics and won as part of a wave of ultraconservative victories in 2018, was caught unawares.
Some of Bolsonaro’s allies, though, seemed to have foreknowledge of the impending raids. On Monday, Carla Zambelli, a member of Congress and one of Bolsonaro’s fiercest and closest defenders, said during a radio interview that “some governors are under investigation by the Federal Police” for crimes committed amid the fight against the pandemic. The same day, Eduardo Bolsonaro, himself a member of the Federal Police and a sitting member of Congress, suggested on his social media that an operation was looming.
The process that led to the raids came at record speed. piauí magazine reported that Attorney General Augusto Aras, another Bolsonaro appointee, issued the subpoenas against Witzel less than a week after he received records related to the inquiry. On Monday, hours before the raid on Witzel, Bolsonaro made an unannounced visit to Aras’s office. The same day, Zambelli and Eduardo Bolsonaro teased the operation.
Though the scandal surrounding Witzel is plausible — his wife’s business was the alleged recipient of large payments by the likely fraudsters — the prospect of interference by Bolsonaro offered him a scapegoat. Witzel told the press that Brazil is “governed by a leader who is politically persecuting those he considers to be the enemy,” adding that Bolsonaro is “a fascist.”
Witzel was not alone in casting doubt on the motives behind the raid. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo and another of Bolsonaro’s conservative rivals, expressed discomfort with the operation: “It hints at an authoritarian escalation that is worrying.”
For Bolsonaro, however, the more immediate threat may not come from allegations of politically motivated investigations. Indeed, even as Bolsonaro’s allies celebrated the raids against his political rivals on Monday, legal issues were looming for some of these same supporters. On Wednesday, several prominent Bolsonaro allies were targeted by the force in an inquiry led by the Supreme Court against fake news.
Proprietors of right-wing blogs, including some of the most influential ultra-conservative figures on the Brazilian internet, were targeted by search and seizure warrants. Their mobile phones and computers were seized. Although he was not a target, Carlos Bolsonaro, the president’s son, seems to be a figure in the investigation. Carlos is widely known as the informal chief of the “hate cabinet” — a nickname given to the presidential advisors that execute Bolsonaro’s strategy on social media — a group linked to some of the investigation’s targets.
On Wednesday, several prominent Bolsonaro allies were targeted by the force in an inquiry led by the Supreme Court against fake news.
This inquiry is unique in the Brazilian legal system, one in which the Supreme Court investigates crimes and threats against its own members. The judge in charge, Alexandre de Moraes, was himself the target of the fake news operations he’s investigating and his peers may eventually be called to judge crimes of which they’re the victims. The peculiar and unprecedented nature of the investigation — which is not in itself illegal, but does take advantage of gaps in Brazilian law — raises questions about the impartiality of the court in the matter at hand, and even the specter of unaccountable authoritarian jurisprudence.
Nonetheless, the inquiry launched with Wednesday’s operation is set to ensnare even members of Congress. Zambelli, the member of Congress who publicly teased Tuesday’s raids, will have to testify. Businessmen with close ties to Bolsonaro will have their financial records scrutinized, among them Luciano Hang, the talkative owner of dozens of mega-stores. This could, in the end, put Bolsonaro’s campaign in reach of the investigation: Folha de S. Paulo newspaper reported almost a year ago that businessmen financed the distribution of content, at least partially based on fake news, in favor of Bolsonaro’s candidacy through WhatsApp, a popular messaging service in Brazil.
Perhaps the only major conservative political institution that has yet to weigh in on the recent fake news inquiry is the military. Retired military officials with links to Bolsonaro — including the retired army general who runs the Ministry of Defense — have from time to time publicly expressed their anger with court decisions they have seen as a blow to the president’s autonomy, which they view as a conduit for power. One such occasion was the Supreme Court’s veto of Bolsonaro’s choice to lead the police force.
Yet the military, like the Supreme Court itself, has been targeted by the far-right fake-news machine. Whenever retired military officials in the administration make decisions that seemed to displease the Bolsonaros, misinformation about them would percolate on the internet. So there were very few complaints from the barracks about the fake news inquiry.
But if the fake news inquiry begins to reach up into and threaten the Bolsonaro administration — which the military views as a conduit for its empowerment — that would quickly change. With things moving as quickly as they are in Brazil’s chaotic politics, that might be only a matter of days.