Newly leaked audio recordings have sparked a political firestorm in Brazil - linking President Jair Bolsonaro to an extortion scheme where political staffers had to give up part of their salaries in order to keep their jobs, a practice known as "rachadinha." InSight Crime looks back at how these allegations have grown over the years.
It began on December 6, 2018. It had been just 91 days since Jair Bolsonaro, a polarizing veteran of Rio de Janeiro’s brutal political wars, had been stabbed in the belly during a presidential campaign stop.
The stab wound was deep, reaching his liver, lung and intestines. Despite not returning to the campaign trail, he won both rounds of the presidential election.
By December, with polls showing he was admired and feared in seemingly equal measure, Bolsonaro was preparing for his upcoming inauguration. In a speech to Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral – TSE), he solemnly declared that “the building of a fairer and more developed nation requires a break with historical practices that have delayed our progress, no more corruption, no more violence, no more lies.”
But another wound was coming, not a physical one but a slow-acting wound that would regularly return to sap energy from Bolsonaro, his family and his closest allies.
Fabrício Queiroz, The Confidant
On December 6, 2018, Brazil’s Council for Financial Activities Control (Conselho de Controle de Atividades Financeiras - Coaf) released a damning report. It identified suspicious transactions worth 1.2 million reais (around $230,000) made by Fabrício José Carlos de Queiroz, the former driver of Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flávio.
Many of these transactions were for sums under $10,000 reais (about $1,900), presumably as a way of trying to hide them. Another $24,000 reais (around $4,600) were paid to the account of the first lady in waiting, Michelle Bolsonaro.
Perhaps to their credit, the Bolsonaro clan did not immediately throw Queiroz under the bus. This man had been a long-term ally, a chauffeur, an adviser, a friend invited to barbecues and football games.
On December 7, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro admitted to the payments. In fact, he said Queiroz had paid his wife more than what Coaf had stated. The repayments had been for a total of $40,000 reais, made in 10 installments of $4,000 each to settle a personal debt.
But the story didn’t go away. And a word that has long plagued Brazilian politics entered the conversation.
What is Rachadinha?
Rachadinha. The concept is tricky. Foreign correspondents weren’t even sure how to translate it. It derives from rachar, to split or to crack.
It refers to a scheme somewhere between extortion and bribery, which can be carried out in a number of ways. One common tactic sees lower-ranked government officials or political staffers forced to split their public salary, keeping one part for themselves and giving another to their superiors in order to keep their jobs. Another way is to simply create fake political jobs, with those appointed to these positions never doing any work. Their salary is then again divided between themselves and higher-ups.
And it is seemingly omnipresent in Rio. The first Coaf report was not focused on Queiroz alone, it named around 20 other political staff in the Rio de Janeiro legislature at the time as being involved with rachadinha.
The Queiroz scheme appeared to be of the first variety. The amounts involved quickly increased. By mid-December 2018, an investigation by Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office found that Queiroz had been involved in up to $2.9 million in suspicious transactions, with small amounts deposited and withdrawn in cash. At least 483 deposits were linked to political staff or advisors linked to Flávio Bolsonaro, then a state senator in Rio de Janeiro.
Prosecutors stated that Flávio was receiving money in seemingly legal transactions after the funds were laundered through a chocolate shop he owned in western Rio.
The amounts directly linked to the presidential couple also continued to increase. In 2020, news magazine Crusoé reported that Michelle Bolsonaro had been receiving payments from Queiroz since 2011, reaching 89,000 reais (about $17,000). Queiroz was even paying school fees for Flávio’s daughters.
And the money allegedly paid to the entire Bolsonaro family was also adding up: 450,000 reais (some $86,000).
But still, the family of the president managed to dodge trouble. For a while, at least.
In August 2020, Queiroz was arrested at the home of Frederick Wassef, the attorney of Flávio Bolsonaro. But not for any charges connected to rachadinha. Instead, one of the most-watched men in Brazil had allegedly been continuing to commit crimes, working to slow down the investigation, in part by pressuring witnesses.
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The mood in the Bolsonaro camp shifted.
Flávio went on the attack. The allegations against Queiroz were “another piece moved on the checkerboard to attack Bolsonaro,” he wrote on Twitter.
President Bolsonaro was also pugnacious. At a press conference a week after Queiroz’s arrest, a reporter from O Globo asked: “President, why did your wife Michelle receive 89,000 reais from Fabrício Queiroz?”
“I feel like covering your mouth in punches,” the president replied.
The case continued to evolve.
Bolsonaro Clan Under Investigation
By early 2021, Flávio Bolsonaro was under investigation for the rachadinha case, suspected of having helped to create 12 fake jobs in his office as state senator, leading to the embezzlement of 6.1 million reais (more than $1 million).
In a breathtaking act of political showmanship, Flávio sold the chocolate shop suspected of laundering the rachadinha money and bought a luxury mansion in the capital, Brasilia. The price of the mansion: 6 million reais.
The rachadinha case remained a wound in the side of the president, distracting him, putting his children and his wife in legal jeopardy, requiring his increasingly strident attention.
That is until July 5, 2021. In a three-part investigation, Brazilian news site, UOL published audio messages from President Bolsonaro’s former sister-in-law, which seem to indicate the president was an active part of a rachadinha scheme while he was a state deputy in Rio from 1991 to 2018. In these messages, Andrea Siqueira Valle can be heard describing how the president kicked out her brother, André, from a rachadinha scheme for not paying in enough money.
“André caused a lot of problems because he never returned the right amount of money that had to be returned, you understand? He had to pay in 6,000 reais but he paid in 2,000, 3,000 reais. It was a while like that until Jair caught him and said: enough. You can remove him because he never gives me the right money,” said Siqueira Valle.
This marks the first time President Bolsonaro has been directly linked to any rachadinha scheme.
The Bolsonaro family lawyer, the same one who was hiding Queiroz before his arrest, immediately denied the allegations. But the probe is picking up steam.
Yet, Bolsonaro may yet cling to power. His presidential impunity would have to be stripped for him to face an impeachment trial. Despite the president’s falling popularity, his political allies have not abandoned him and are likely to block any motion to impeach or strip him of immunity.
But should the rachadinha case be shelved until he leaves office in 2022, it would likely become one of a number of cases haunting the embattled president.