The Bolsonaro administration’s ticking time-bomb
Brazil’s mounting Covid-19 death toll is not the president’s biggest problem
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, at an event at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on June 30th. Photograph: Andre Borges/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The only time during the whole of the coronavirus pandemic that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has looked genuinely shaken was during his weekly Facebook Live session on the evening of June 18th. Appearing dishevelled in a baggy anorak that contrasted oddly with the tidy rows of books behind him, the usually voluble far-right leader was despondent.
But he had not been reduced to a near stupor by the mounting death toll from Covid-19 and a soaring infection rate which meant tens of thousands more Brazilians were certain to die. Nor was it any realisation that his administration had spectacularly botched its response to the outbreak. Or that his own trenchant denialism about the virus was responsible for the fiasco.
Instead it was the arrest earlier that morning of his old army buddy Fabrício Queiroz that had left him seemingly desolate. More than a year after he disappeared from public view Queiroz had been detained by police on charges of obstructing an investigation into a corruption scheme run out of the office of his former boss, none other than the president’s eldest son Flávio Bolsonaro.
The question “Where’s Queiroz?” – to which the Bolsonaros had for months insisted they had no idea – had finally been answered. And in a manner that stunned everyone. It turned out he had been hiding in a house owned by their own lawyer.
The Queiroz Case, as it is known in Brazil, has always been a time bomb ticking away underneath the Bolsonaro administration. The threat it represents to the first family helps explain the president’s efforts to co-opt or cower the state organs tasked with combating corruption.
In recent weeks this campaign has ended up provoking an institutional stand-off giving rise to fears the president might order the military in against the supreme court. It is a crisis that has consumed energies in the capital Brasília, just as the new coronavirus rampages through the population.
The case first broke into public view in December 2018 when the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper reported the federal agency responsible for detecting money laundering had flagged suspicious activity in Queiroz’s bank accounts. The story immediately caused a stir because, since 2007, Queiroz had worked for Flávio Bolsonaro, who at the time was a deputy in Rio de Janeiro’s state assembly – one of three Bolsonaro sons who followed their father into politics .
Queiroz’s long-standing membership of the Bolsonaros’ inner circle dating back to the 1980s raised the suspicion that Flávio Bolsonaro was guilty of operating a typical rachadinha scheme – literally a little carve-up – in which politicians pocket the taxpayer-funded salaries of phantom staff members.
The report was all the more jarring because Flávio had just been promoted to federal senator, heading to Brasília on the coattails of his father who that October had been elected president on a promise to clean up Brazil’s corrupt political system. Now, even before he could be sworn in, here was a report that called into question his own family’s ethical behaviour.
Queiroz tried to explain away what was eventually revealed to be millions of reais passing through his accounts by claiming the money had come from a side business he ran buying and selling used cars. Later he changed his story, admitting he had skimmed off part of the salaries of Flávio Bolsonaro’s team but only in order to pay other informal staff who had been hired “to multiply and refine the means of listening to the population by a parliamentarian”.
After surgery in January of last year Queiroz said he needed to look after his health and disappeared from view. But investigators continued to build their case. By the time they requested his arrest prosecutors described him as the financial operator of a rachadinha whose “leader” was Flávio Bolsonaro.
They provided a judge with evidence that Queiroz had used cash from the scheme to pay the private school fees of Flávio’s daughters as well as his family’s healthcare plan. Also under investigation is the buying and selling of up to 19 apartments by Flávio Bolsonaro and his wife, and their investment in a chocolate shop, all of which are suspected of being used by the couple to launder money.
“The evidence prosecutors have presented is serious and overwhelming,” says Gil Castello Branco, head of Contas Abertas, a public-spending watchdog.
Flávio Bolsonaro denies any wrongdoing. But tentative efforts by the Bolsonaros to let Queiroz take the blame for any crimes prosecutors could stand up foundered on two rocks. First, the family’s relationship with him was too old and too intimate for anyone to believe Queiroz was freelancing. There was also the risk that alienating Queiroz could provoke retaliation that would further compromise the first family.
Among the suspect transactions prosecutors discovered was 24,000 reais (€4,000) that Queiroz had deposited in the bank account of Brazil’s first lady, Michele Bolsonaro. Her husband claimed it was the repayment of a loan he had given to his old friend, but provided no corroborating evidence to back up his explanation.
President Bolsonaro has also failed to explain the mysterious case of Queiroz’s daughter, Nathália, who was employed on his staff in Brasília when he was still a federal deputy. Staff records show she never set foot in the congress building. Her social media accounts indicate that when drawing a federal salary she was working as a personal trainer back in Rio.
Her case is one of a number active investigations into Bolsonaro’s congressional office that are under seal in the Brasília office of the federal prosecution service.
But even more damagingly the Queiroz Case exposed the links the Bolsonaro clan maintained with leading members of Rio’s criminal underworld. After he was drummed out of the military for insubordination in 1988, Jair Bolsonaro went into politics.
Queiroz in turn joined Rio’s police. While serving in the force’s 18th Battalion he became friends with Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega, nicknamed Captain Adriano, a legendary shot and notoriously brutal officer. In 2014, Adriano was expelled from the force for moonlighting as an enforcer for an illegal lottery operator. By then he was already deeply involved in crime, having become one of the city’s most notorious militia leaders.
These criminal organisations, usually formed by serving and former police officers, exercise territorial control over swathes of Brazil’s second-biggest metropolis, pushing out drug gangs and taking over lucrative businesses such as clandestine bus services, distribution of bottled gas and illegal cable television hook-ups.
Captain Adriano led the militia that controlled the Rio das Pedras neighbourhood in the west of the city. He also headed up an “elite” militia outfit known as the Office of Crime, which carried out contract killings. Despite this when Queiroz was seconded from the police to work for Flávio at the state assembly he did not forget his old police friend, putting Adriano’s mother and ex-wife on the payroll.
Investigators say there is no evidence the two women ever did any work for Flávio Bolsonaro. During the period they were on his staff the two women were paid a million reais (€167,000). Of this, 400,000 reais (€67,000) was allegedly passed back to Queiroz after being washed through two pizzerias owned by Adriano.
For experts who monitor Rio’s militias, links such as these, increasingly common in local politics, provide an electoral return. “If you look at where Jair and Flávio Bolsonaro have the largest concentration of votes in Rio it is in militia-controlled areas and this had been growing over time. This expresses in electoral terms their close relationship,” says sociologist José Cláudio Souza Alves, who has spent the last quarter century studying the militia phenomenon.
The revelations were more shocking still because the Office of Crime had been suspected of involvement in the still unsolved murder of Marielle Franco, the black, gay, left-wing city council member who was brutally shot dead with her driver Anderson Gomes in March 2018.
Two men, both ex-cops, one a neighbour of the president’s, have been arrested for the killings but the search for who ordered the hit goes on. Captain Adriano was questioned in the Marielle case but never charged.
Many of the Bolsonaros’ enemies believe the family was somehow involved in her murder. But the investigation is increasingly leading in other directions. “The militias didn’t need to be told to kill Marielle. They had their own reasons for murdering her,” notes Souza Alves.
Even so Flávio was the only state deputy to vote against awarding the assassinated politician the Tiradentes Medal, the Rio legislature’s highest honour, the same one he arranged to be conferred on Adriano in 2005 – when he was in jail on a homicide charge.
In January 2019 when authorities launched “Operation Untouchables” against Adriano’s militia the “captain” was finally forced to go on the run. A little over a year later he was dead.
Officially he was killed in a shoot-out during a police raid on his hideout in the northeastern state of Bahia in February. But forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts point to the cornered the militia leader being summarily executed. After his death Adriano’s lawyer Paulo Catta Preta said his client knew if found he would be eliminated in what Brazilians call a “burning of the archive”.
Before then the missing Queiroz resurfaced, or at least his voice did in a recording obtained by the press last October. In it he complained to an unidentified interlocutor that “your man over there is hyper-protected. I don’t see anyone doing anything to try and help me” and warning that prosecutors “have a hard-on the size of a comet to tear into us and I don’t see anyone taking action.”
Who “your man over there” referred to is not clear but action was being taken to try to resolve Queiroz’s situation. Flávio Bolsonaro was waging a furious legal offensive to have the investigation into the rachadinha quashed. And for a period last year he looked close to success.
But in December these hopes were dashed when the supreme court cleared a path for prosecutors to demand Queiroz’s arrest last month.
Queiroz’s detention threw the spotlight on Frederick Wassef, lawyer to both Jair and Flávio Bolsonaro, who owned the house Queiroz was picked up in.
Wassef had previously denied any knowledge of Queiroz’s whereabouts when defending his clients on cable news channels. Once this was revealed to be a lie he admitted he had in fact hidden him but only because he had learned Queiroz was to be assassinated and the blame pinned on the Bolsonaro family. He said the Bolsonaros had no knowledge of what he was up to, but in several interviews after the arrest seemed to emit veiled warnings that he was not to be abandoned.
“If you hit me you hurt the president. The president and I have become the same person,” he told CNN.
Nevertheless Flávio dropped him as his lawyer, even as Queiroz hired the person who had previously represented Adriano. Despite being dispensed with, Wassef could yet cause legal problems for the Bolsonaros.
Prosecutors have phone records that point to his involvement in secret negotiations between Queiroz and Adriano, which involved another member of Flávio’s legal team, Luis Gustavo Botto, Queiroz’s wife and the mother and ex-wife of Adriano, two of Flávio’s phantom staff members, both of whom were by now also on the run. What was being discussed between the two men was not clear. What is known is that records show Wassef met the president in Brasília just hours after Queiroz’s wife received a response from Adriano – at the time a fugitive from justice – to some sort of proposal made to the militia leader.
But the biggest risk to the Bolsonaros currently is the possibility a jailed Queiroz will cut a deal with prosecutors in which he spills their secrets in return for a reduced sentence. “If he did it would land like an atomic bomb in the lap of the president,” says Castello Branco of Contas Abertas.
Flávio Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still attempting to kick the case into the legal long grass. If he fails to do so, he could see himself formally charged with Queiroz.
Further complicating the lives of the Bolsonaros are signals that an investigation into whether the president unlawfully interfered in the federal police hierarchy in order to better protect his sons is beginning to intersect with the one into Flávio’s rachadinha.
This supposed interference was given by anti-corruption crusader Sergio More as the reason he quit as justice minister in April. A canny veteran of complex probes, he clearly signposted where investigators checking out his claims should look. To evidence of corruption could soon be added that of an attempt to undermine the investigation into it.
And this week also saw movement in a third case, this one into Bolsonaro’s second son Carlos. He is also accused of employing phantom staff during his five terms as a city councillor in Rio, among them one of his father’s ex-wives and seven of her relatives, some of whom have said they never worked for Carlos.
As his family’s legal problems have worsened, President Bolsonaro has been busily auctioning off portions of the federal government to the most unscrupulous elements of congress in order to buy protection against possible impeachment proceedings. But these new allies are notoriously unreliable, and his presidency is increasingly at the mercy of the inquiries into him and his sons, ever vulnerable to the destabilising effects of new revelations to emerge from them.
For the Bolsonaros it is these probes that now represent an existential threat, not the pandemic.