The Bolsonaro Family’s Downward Spiral of Corruption

Graft charges against Flavio Bolsonaro throw wide open the web of corruption around Brazil’s first family.
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Jair Bolsonaro, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 8/12/2020 © BW Press / Shutterstock

November 11, 2020 05:04 EDT

The Bolsonaro family suffered a severe blow in the first week of November. It was not Donald Trump’s loss in the US election, given that the businessman is the benchmark by which Jair Bolsonaro tries to model his presidency in Brazil. On November 3, the public prosecutor of Rio de Janeiro has named the president’s eldest son, Flavio Bolsonaro, as the head of a criminal organization, formally accusing him of embezzlement, money laundering and misappropriation of public funds to the tune of 2.3 million reais ($554.000).

Jair Bolsonaro’s Image Crisis


The accusations against Flavio Bolsonaro pertain to the period between 2007 and 2018, when he served four terms as state deputy. The chronology of the facts and the characters involved expose the shadowy political trajectory of his father’s path to the presidency of Brazil.

Splitting the Salary

Jair Bolsonaro has five children. His three eldest sons — 01, 02 and 03, as he refers to them — followed their father into politics. Flavio was born in 1981; Carlos, in 1982, and Eduardo in 1984. At the time, Bolsonaro Sr. was a paratrooper in the army, where he met Fabricio Queiroz, who became a military police officer in 1987, serving in the rank of lieutenant until 2018. Jair Bolsonaro’s military career ended after he threatened to plant bombs in army barracks in retaliation for low wages. He was tried, acquitted and sent to the reserves in 1987, entering public life the following year.

Upon winning his first term as state deputy in Rio de Janeiro, in 2003, Flavio Bolsonaro hired Mariana Mota, a friend of his mother (to whom Jair Bolsonaro was no longer married) as an adviser. The public prosecutor designated her as the first operator of the so-called rachadinha (salary split), a scheme where employees are “hired” only to return most of their income to the employer. These “salary splits” constitute the main charges against the president’s eldest son.

In 2007, Flavio Bolsonaro began his second term and hired his father’s army friend, Fabricio Queiroz — as well as Queiroz’s wife and daughter. He also hired the wife and mother of the leader of one of Brazil’s largest militias, Office of Crime, Adriano da Nobrega, who ran an extortion racket in ​​Rio. Flavio Bolsonaro had already awarded Nobrega the Tiradentes medal, the highest honor of the legislative assembly of Rio de Janeiro, in 2005, when the former policeman captain was serving jail time for murder. In 2007, Nobrega was released after Jair Bolsonaro, then a federal deputy with the right-wing Progressive Party, appealed to the chamber of deputies in his favor.

Nobrega was killed in a police ambush earlier this year, when he was on the run after being accused of the murder of Councilwoman Marielle Franco. The case caused widespread national commotion. Nobrega and Fabricio Queiroz were friends. 

Debt and Real Estate

The list of suspected criminal activity in connection with Flavio Bolsonaro is lengthy. Mainly, it entails cash payments for real estate and debts, in a country where cash is notoriously linked to illegal activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. In 2008, Flavio Bolsonaro paid 86,779.43 reais (around $40,000 at the time) in cash for the purchase of 12 commercial offices in a high-end shopping mall in Rio, which he resold less than a month later at a healthy profit. The following year, he spent 31,000 reais in cash to pay off his losses on the stock exchange.

In 2012, 638,000 reais in cash went toward the purchase of two properties in Copacabana, on which Bolosnaro Jr. declared a profit of nearly 300% when they were sold in 2014. In 2016, he acquired a franchise branch of luxury chocolate stores. An investigation by the public prosecutor’s office concluded that the establishment was used for money laundering since it sold products below the list price while filling invoices with integral values.

Fabricio Queiroz, meanwhile, was investigated until 2018, when the public prosecutor’s office pointed out suspicious movements on his accounts in the order of 5.3 million reais between 2014 and 2015, and a further 1.2 million in 2016 and 2017. A businessman in charge of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, Paulo Marinho, said that the Bolsonaros were warned of the federal police operation to detain Queiroz on the eve of the election. Queiroz fled, remaining at large until June this year, when he was found and arrested at the country home of Flavio Bolsonaro’s lawyer, Frederick Wassef. 

Another explosive testimony by Flavio’s former adviser, Luiza Souza Paes, revealed that between 2011 and 2017, she passed on more than 90% of her salary back to Queiroz, providing bank statements as evidence. Between December 2014 and November 2017, she was at her designated workplace at Rio de Janeiro’s assembly just three times.

The investigation into Flavio Bolsonaro has continued in parallel over the past two years, tracking the suspicious hiring of advisers by the family. In 2018, Flavio was elected senator, Carlos councilman, Eduardo deputy, and Jair Bolsonaro president. An investigation by O Globo revealed last year that since 1991, the Bolsonaros — nicknamed “familicia” in Brazil — had hired 102 people with family ties to work in their four respective offices. In total, 15 of Flavio Bolsonaro’s aides were denounced. If the court accepts the motion against the president’s eldest son, he will become a defendant in a criminal case. Fabricio Queiroz has served a month in jail and currently remains under house arrest.

Downward Spiral

With these revelations, the downward spiral of Jair Bolsonaro’s government seems to be increasing. Bolsonaro was elected on the promise of ending corruption in the country, distancing himself from “old politics” that distributed high posts to politicians with a questionable past in exchange for support, as well as ending benefits and privileges for those in public office.

In the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, after trying to interfere in the federal police investigation into his children, his main asset in the fight against corruption, Judge Sergio Moro, who was responsible for the arrest of former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, resigned his post as minister of justice, accusing the president of political interference for personal reasons.

Bolsonaro sought help from party politicians he said he disliked, who are known for shifting positions and accepting money for support, and recently faced public embarrassment when his deputy in the senate, Chico Rodrigues, was caught by the federal police with 33,000 reais in his underwear, some of which was stashed between his buttocks. In addition to the detention of Fabricio Queiroz, Flavio Bolsonaro faces possible arrest; the public prosecutor has demanded that the senator give up his mandate at the end of the investigation if he is convicted.

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All of these events betray Jair Bolsonaro as a politician trying to balance himself in a tightrope of popularity. He was elected on the right-wing wave that has swept many parts of the globe in recent years, spurred on, to a degree, by the election of Donald Trump in the United States. The Bolsonaro family even hired Trump’s controversial campaign strategist, Steve Bannon. Adopting strategies seen in the 2016 US election, Bolsonaro’s campaign employed bots to influence social media narratives at an opportune time when Brazil’s leftist government opened the black box of corruption, which started by exploding the then-ruling Workers’ Party from within. Bolsonaro assumed the position of his middle name, Messias — the savior — who would rid the country of corruption, with guns if necessary; his campaign gimmick was to make a weapon gesture with both hands.

Tightrope of Popularity

Bolsonaro took office with a 50% approval rating. When the first signs of family corruption began to appear, the index dropped to around 40%. Much of this falling popularity was sustained on creating smoke screens, making fiery speeches against imaginary opponents and trying to divert attention. At the end of 2019, when the rachadinha case made headlines, ratings dropped further, to around 30%. As Bolsonaro fumbled with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, following Trump in denial of the seriousness of the threat and disdain for preventative measures against the virus, Sergio Moro’s resignation brought the president’s popularity down to the 20% range.

During this nadir of his government, the national congress demanded emergency aid for the population unable to work and who could not survive without financial assistance. Approximately $100 in monthly allowance was approved and, as a consequence, Bolsonaro realized that he could buy back his popularity since most of those who received it believed they have the president to thank for it.

Bolsonaro then began to fight for the maintenance of emergency aid, which diverted attention from the problems of corruption in the family. But Brazil is not a rich country, and financial assistance is being reduced gradually; it is now at $50.

Without the purchase of popularity, with nothing to conceal the tenebrious connections that marked his entire political trajectory and that of his children, and without his idol in power — Bolsonaro even said “I love you” to Trump during the UN General Assembly last year — the clouds appear to be gathering above the heads of the Bolsonaro familicia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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