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Turmoil in Brazil: Bolsonaro Fires Police Chief and Justice Minister Quits

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s justice minister, Sergio Moro, a former federal judge who became the face of a powerful anti-corruption crackdown that swept Latin America, resigned Friday after accusing President Jair Bolsonaro of seeking to assert improper control of the federal police for political gain.

The resignation of Mr. Moro, one of Brazil’s most popular politicians, set off a political uproar in Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, as critics accused the president of having undermined a key pillar of democracy.

Mr. Moro was the eighth minister to leave Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet during the 15 months he has been in office. His acrimonious departure plunged Brasília, the capital, into crisis mode as Brazil grapples with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the economic meltdown the pandemic has unleashed, and Mr. Bolsonaro’s resistance to strong containment measures.

In an extraordinary parting rebuke, Mr. Moro recounted in great detail a conversation during which he failed to persuade the president not to follow through on his plan to fire the federal police chief, Maurício Valeixo.

Mr. Moro said Mr. Bolsonaro had confided that he wanted a police chief he could call directly and on whom he could count to obtain sensitive investigative information and intelligence dossiers.

The quest comes as several allies of the president — including two of his sons — are under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors and the Supreme Court.

“Moro’s resignation is a seismic event in Brazilian politics,” said Ilona Szabó, the executive director of Igarapé Institute, which studies public safety in Brazil. “His departure signals a dangerous new phase for Brazil.”

Ms. Szabó called the president’s move a “coup against democracy because the autonomy of the federal police is an essential foundation for democratic governance.”

In his resignation speech, delivered at the Justice Ministry, Mr. Moro provided a politically damaging account of his final substantive conversation with the president, which took place on Thursday.

“The president said more than once, expressly, that he wanted a person he could be in touch with personally, whom he could call directly, from whom he could receive information, intelligence reports,” Mr. Moro said, describing the kind of relationship Mr. Bolsonaro wanted with a new police chief.

Mr. Moro said he had urged Mr. Bolsonaro to reconsider the implications of his plan, but said the president was determined to have a federal police chief who would do his bidding.

Mr. Moro said the president was “worried about pending cases before the Supreme Court,” and that the change at the federal police “would also be helpful in that sense.”

Brazil’s federal law-enforcement agencies were given a tremendous degree of independence when the country’s 21-year period of military rule ended in the late 1980s.

Mr. Moro called the president’s dismissal of Mr. Valeixo a clear breach of a condition he set when he accepted the ministry in late 2018. Mr. Moro said the president had promised him “carte blanche” in making critical law enforcement appointments and safeguarding the political independence of institutions under his command.

“I cannot stay on without being able to preserve the autonomy of the federal police,” Mr. Moro said, looking pained. Failing to resign, he added, “would signal agreement with interference in the federal police that stands to have unpredictable consequences.”

Mr. Bolsonaro was elected on a platform to strengthen Brazil’s fight against corruption and embrace free market reforms. Mr. Moro was seen as a guarantor of the first promise, but his efforts to get Congress to pass anti-corruption reforms never got much traction or support from the president.

The president said in a message on Twitter that he would hold a news conference later in the afternoon to “establish the truth” about the ouster of the police chief and Mr. Moro.

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Mr. Valeixo is a veteran federal police official who worked closely with Mr. Moro in corruption investigations. It is not clear whether Mr. Bolsonaro has replacements in mind to head the federal police and the Justice Ministry.

In joining his cabinet, Mr. Moro took a widely criticized gamble by leaving a 22-year judgeship, which called into question the integrity of his work on the bench.

Mr. Moro, 47, was the most visible leader of a sprawling corruption investigation known as Car Wash that began in Brazil in 2014 and rippled across the region, leading to the imprisonment of presidents and powerful business moguls.

The most high-profile defendant Mr. Moro convicted as part of that operation was former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was found guilty of money laundering and corruption in July 2017. That outcome thwarted Mr. da Silva’s bid to seek a third presidential term at a time when he was the front-runner.

Mr. Moro’s conduct in that prosecution came under scrutiny after the Intercept Brasil, an online news site, published articles last year based on leaked private messages from the hacked phones of federal prosecutors. Those messages made clear Mr. Moro broke ethical and legal rules by providing strategic guidance to prosecutors.

Mr. Moro’s resignation deepens Mr. Bolsonaro’s political isolation as he steers a public health crisis that has plunged Brazil into a new economic crisis.

Mr. Bolsonaro has come under withering criticism at home and abroad for downplaying the gravity of the coronavirus, which is spreading at an accelerated rate and overwhelming hospitals in several states.

Last week Mr. Bolsonaro fired his health minister after the two clashed over the kind of mitigation measures required to avert a public health calamity. The president has called the virus “measly cold” that doesn’t warrant quarantine measures detrimental to the labor market and economic growth.

That view has sparked daily protests and a movement in Congress to impeach him.

The Social Liberal Party or P.S.L., a right wing party Mr. Bolsonaro joined to run for president, issued a statement calling the events that led to Mr. Moro’s departure deeply disturbing and likely criminal. Mr. Bolsonaro left the party in November after fighting with former allies. He currently does not belong to a political party.

The P.S.L. called the “unjustified dismissal” of the police chief a “clear form of political interference by President Jair Bolsonaro in the fight against organized crime that not only breaks with his campaign promises, but amounts to a series of crimes of responsibility, including obstruction of justice.”

Joise Hasselman, a lawmaker from São Paulo who served as Mr. Bolsonaro’s leader in Congress until last October, accused the president on Friday of seeking to shield his sons from criminal investigations.

“That has become abundantly clear is that the president is trying to meddle with the leadership of the federal police to prevent it from doing the work they need to do,” she said in a voice message. “So that they don’t get to his sons.”

Mr. Bolsonaro’s son Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator, is under investigation for allegedly skimming off the salaries of some public employees in his former office as a state lawmaker in Rio de Janeiro. Flávio Bolsonaro has denied wrongdoing and sought to halt the investigations.

During his address, Mr. Moro recounted his legacy as a judge and presented himself as a law-abiding public servant who would find other ways to serve Brazilians in the future.

“What he was trying to do was maintain some of the political capital he has gained and distance himself from a president that seems to be increasingly toxic,” said Malu Gatto, an assistant professor of Latin American politics at University College London.



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