Brazil police raid homes of environment minister in illegal logging inquiry

Ricardo Salles investigated over link to Amazon forest products contraband

Federal police in Brazil raided the homes of environment minister Ricardo Salles on Wednesday as part of an investigation into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest.

The operation was authorised by a supreme court judge after police provided evidence of what he described as a “grave scheme to facilitate contraband in forest products”. The judge also ordered the suspension of 10 officials, among them the head of the country’s environmental protection agency who reports directly to Mr Salles.

Among more than 30 other addresses targeted was the office of a law firm linked to the minister through which 14.1 million reais (€2.1 million) in what police labelled “atypical” financial transactions had passed. Police were also granted access to Mr Salles’s financial records.

The investigation was launched following a tip-off from US officials who suspected corrupt Brazilian officials were providing falsified paperwork for illegally felled Amazonian hardwoods being exported to the US.


Illegal timber

The operation, baptised Akuanduba after an indigenous deity, comes a month after Mr Salles lashed out at the federal police after its officers carried out the largest-ever seizure of illegal timber in the country's history. The minister rushed to defend the loggers involved, leading to the removal of Alexandre Saraiva, the police chief responsible for the seizure.

On Wednesday, Mr Saraiva took to social media to celebrate the police operation targeting the minister by quoting from Psalms: “Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

Mr Salles was already one of the most controversial ministers in the administration of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to dismantle Brazil's environmental protection regime.

Deforestation in the Amazon has risen dramatically under his watch, leading to threats of trade sanctions against Brazil by politicians in the US and EU. Last year, federal prosecutors demanded Mr Salles’s removal from office after accusing him of deliberately overseeing the illegal dismantling of the environmental protection regime he oversees.

Public outrage

He also caused public outrage after being caught on video during a cabinet meeting last year saying the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the pandemic to accelerate deregulation.

The current police investigation is not the first corruption accusation against him. In March, he won his appeal against a conviction dating back to when he was environment secretary for the state of São Paulo.

The police raids added to another difficult day for the embattled Bolsonaro administration, during which former health minister Eduardo Pazuello testified before a congressional inquiry into the government's response to the pandemic.

The army general was involved in several heated discussions during the hearing and accused of lying in an attempt to defend his former boss.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America