Former far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Photo: Archives)
On Monday March 6, the government of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ordered the Federal Police to investigate allegations that a government official under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, had illegally tried to bring millions of dollars worth of jewelry into the country without declaring it to authorities. Justice and Public Security Minister Flávio Dino, who reported on the investigation, said that the case could constitute “crimes of smuggling, embezzlement and money laundering, among others.”
Last week, on March 3, the Estadão newspaper reported that Marcos André Soeiro, an advisor to Bolsonaro’s Minister of Mines and Energy Bento Albuquerque, had tried to smuggle to Brazil a US$3.2 million jewelry set consisting of a diamond necklace, ring, watch and earrings. The jewelry was allegedly gifted to the far-right former president and former first lady Michelle Bolsonaro by the government of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman.
According to the report, the jewels were found by customs agents in Soeiro’s suitcase during an inspection at the Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, while a government delegation was returning from an official trip to the Middle East in October 2021. The customs agents seized the jewelry, as according to Brazilian legislation, any goods worth more than US$1,000 must be declared when they enter Brazil and pay the import tax, which is equivalent to 50% of the estimated value of the item. The law also states that if a person is caught trying to omit that they have the product, they are charged with an additional fine of 25% of the value of the product for attempting to smuggle it.
Bolsonaro tentou trazer ilegalmente colar e brincos de diamante de R$ 16,5 milhões para Michelle. Presentes foram dados na Arábia Saudita no final de 2021. A Petrobras havia acabado de vender uma refinaria por 1,8 bilhão de dólares para um grupo da Arábia Saudita. pic.twitter.com/vHMIBxULeA
— Paulo Pimenta (@Pimenta13Br) March 3, 2023
Bolsonaro, who has been residing in the US and has avoided returning to Brazil in the face of various lawsuits against him, on March 4, denied committing any “illegal act.” “I’m being accused of a gift that I neither asked for nor received,” he said in an interview with CNN Brasil. “There is no illegality on my part. I never committed illegal acts.”
Nevertheless, according to the Estadão report, the Bolsonaro government made four unsuccessful attempts to recover the jewels through government officials. After failing, on December 28, 2022, two days before flying to the US, Bolsonaro himself sent a letter to the Federal Revenue Service requesting the transfer of the jewels to the Presidency. This request, however, was denied.
The only way to avoid paying the tax and the fine in Bolsonaro’s case was to declare the jewelry as an official gift to the State. However, in doing so, the jewels would have remained with the Brazilian State, not Michelle Bolsonaro.
This controversy adds to a growing list of scandals and potential legal cases against Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was defeated in the October 2022 run-off election by the progressive Workers’ Party leader Lula. However, he never publicly accepted his defeat or congratulated Lula. On December 30, 2022, 48 hours before Lula’s inauguration, he fled to Florida. On January 8, his supporters stormed key government buildings in the capital Brasília, calling for a military coup to remove Lula from power. Bolsonaro is also facing investigations into whether he played a role in instigating the attack.