The political noose around Brazilian president Michel Temer tightened on Monday with the arrest by federal police of one of his former ministers and closest allies as part of an ongoing corruption investigation.
Geddel Vieira Lima was detained in his home city of Salvador after indications emerged that he was attempting to obstruct an investigation into wrongdoing at a state bank where he had previously been a director.
Mr Vieira Lima becomes the second member of Mr Temer's four-man kitchen cabinet to be arrested following the detention of his former tourism minister Henrique Alves last month.
Monday’s detention is a severe political blow to the president coming as it does while he is lobbying congress to vote against authorising the supreme court to try him on a corruption charge filed by the country’s chief federal prosecutor.
It also ends the political breathing space the president won over the weekend with the release from prison into home arrest of his former special aide, Rodrigo Rocha Loures, who was detained after being filmed receiving a suitcase with 500,000 reais (€135,000) in cash from a business executive. Brazilian billionaire Joseley Batista claims the money was part of a multimillion euro bribe he agreed with the president in return for political favours.
His family claimed Mr Rocha Loures was being submitted to psychological torture in order to provide evidence against the president. The supreme court’s decision to release him was widely interpreted as diminishing the chances of the aide cooperating with prosecutors and following it the government announced Mr Temer would, after all, attend this week’s G20 summit in Germany, having cancelled his trip last week.
Mr Vieira Lima’s detention is based in part on evidence provided by Lúcio Funaro, a financier who allegedly helped Mr Temer’s circle operate an extensive bribery system. Detained last year, he is now cooperating with prosecutors in return for a reduced sentence.
He provided evidence that Mr Vieira Lima had sought to contact his wife on WhatsApp in order to convince him not to cut a deal with prosecutors. Mr Funaro reportedly nicknamed Mr Vieira Lima “alligator mouth” such was his hunger for bribes and kickbacks. He said he had received R$20 million (€5.3 million) from Mr Batista alone.
Mr Vieira Lima was identified as the interlocutor between the president and Mr Batista in a secret recording the billionaire made of a clandestine meeting between the two men in March in which police say they discussed efforts to obstruct ongoing corruption investigations.
When Mr Batista said it had become too risky to enter into contact with Mr Vieira Lima because he was now under investigation and asked for another interlocutor to replace him, Mr Temer named Mr Rocha Loures.
Mr Vieira Lima has been the focus of corruption accusations since the 1980s but avoiding formal charges throughout his career he rose to serve as a minister under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
He was then appointed an executive of state bank Caixa Econômica Federal by president Dilma Rousseff and his arrest is related to the investigation into evidence he conspired with the former speaker of the lower house Eduardo Cunha to demand millions in bribes from companies seeking subsidised credit from the institution. Mr Cunha has already been sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the Petrobras corruption scandal.
After Mr Cunha helped impeach Ms Rousseff, thus passing the presidency to Mr Temer, Mr Vieira Lima returned to cabinet but he was forced out after six months following an unrelated scandal.