Are the tables turning against Jair Bolsonaro?

The Brazilian presidente might be losing establishment support, but he still has the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of rank and file members of the security forces.

Damian Platt
29 June 2020, 5.49pm
Graffiti depicting the dispute between science, portrayed by two health professionals as heroes, versus President Jair Bolsonaro with the coronavirus as villains in São Paulo, Brazil
Aloisio Mauricio/Fotoarena/Sipa USA/PA Images

This month saw a huge breakthrough in the tragic novela that is contemporary politics in Brazil, with the arrest of a man called Fabrício Queiroz, who had been in hiding for 18 months.

His arrest – at a house belonging to the Bolsonaro family lawyer – is key because, according to prosecutors, Queiroz is the gatekeeper for a raft of corrupt activity committed over the last two decades by members of the Bolsonaro family. He is particularly close to senator Flávio Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro’s eldest son, and could potentially inflict enormous damage on the Presidency.

Fabrício Queiroz’s friendship with the president goes back to 1984, when he served as army recruit under Bolsonaro’s tutelage. After leaving the army, Queiroz joined Rio’s military police. He was well known and feared by residents in the City of God favela (made famous by the film of the same name). One night in 2003, he and a colleague shot and killed a resident while on patrol. A homicide investigation into the incident remains open today.

Queiroz remained firm friends with Jair Bolsonaro following his departure from the army. Numerous photographs of the pair enjoying moments of intimacy circulate on the internet: Queiroz and Bolsonaro fishing; Queiroz, Bolsonaro and sons at a barbecue and Queiroz, Flávio and Jair enjoying a meal together. Queiroz worked for Flávio Bolsonaro for eleven years, between 2007 and 2018, after joining his parliamentary team on secondment from the Military Police. While his role was apparently geared towards providing protection for the politician, Queiroz has also been described as “chief of staff” and “driver”. Essentially, he was Flávio’s protector, fixer and right hand man for more than a decade.

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In 2018, a federal government financial intelligence unit tasked with tackling money laundering, identified suspect movements of funds through both Flávio Bolsonaro and Queiroz’s accounts. The monitoring process was an extension of the giant national Car Wash corruption investigation, celebrated by the Bolsonaro family in their electoral pledges to make Brazil corruption-free.

The movements of money in question included 48 separate cash deposits paid to Flávio in a one-month period totalling $30,000 and a single cheque of $8,000 made out to Jair Bolsonaro’s wife. The revelations triggered an inquiry by prosecutors in Rio. This uncovered compelling evidence to suggest that Bolsonaro and Queiroz operated a brazen scheme to embezzle public funds. Evidence so compelling that it apparently drove Queiroz into hiding.

President Bolsonaro’s recent coup mongering might yet prove to have been a bluff too far for the self-appointed dictator-in-waiting

More recently, The Intercept has published details of leaked papers suggesting that Queiroz funnelled these funds into illegal construction projects in areas dominated by paramilitary gangs in Rio de Janeiro. These emanate from the security forces and are known in Brazil as milícia (militia). Evidence has long circulated linking the Bolsonaro family to these shady and violent groups.

The arrest is a bombshell for the Bolsonaro clan. It signals that Bolsonaro is not fireproof and that he might be running out of allies. Queiroz’s detention is also a significant victory for the courts in an on-going and fierce battle between the judiciary and the President and his family. As well as the corruption investigation linked to Queiroz, two further sons of Bolsonaro stand accused of running a fake news network, known locally as “the hate office”.

Additionally, the recent public disclosure of threats made to Supreme Court judges by Bolsonaro supporters (“they should rape and kill their daughters”) was damaging for the president. Two weeks ago detectives swooped on political allies of his, alleged to have financed protests calling for military intervention. A makeshift camp temporarily housing Bolsonaro supporters was also dismantled.

And there are increasing signs that there is little appetite for a coup in military sectors. Bolsonaro’s co-option of nearly 3,000 members of the armed forces, by giving them government jobs, has reportedly created a rift in his core military support between those “inside” and “outside” government. Recent unsolicited official statements threatening armed intervention made by Bolsonaro and his defence minister have allegedly ruffled army feathers. President Bolsonaro’s recent coup mongering might yet prove to have been a bluff too far for the self-appointed dictator-in-waiting.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a bumpy few months for Brazil, especially given the country’s still-escalating COVID crisis. And while Bolsonaro might be losing establishment support, he still has the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of rank and file members of the security forces. The battle for Brazil’s fragile democracy continues.

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