Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, has been named the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s 2020 Person of the Year for his role in promoting organized crime and corruption. He succeeds Malta’s Joseph Muscat to that dubious accolade.
Elected in the wake of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal as an anti-corruption candidate, Bolsonaro has instead surrounded himself with corrupt figures, used propaganda to promote his populist agenda, undermined the justice system, and waged a destructive war against the Amazon region that has enriched some of the country’s worst landowners.
The Destroyer of the Amazon
Bolsonaro narrowly beat two other populist leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, for the dubious prize. Bolsonaro’s actions don’t just affect Brazil. He has opened massive tracts of the Amazon to exploitation by those who had already benefited from the destruction of the critical and endangered region. “The ongoing destruction of the Amazon is taking place because of corrupt policy choices made by Bolsonaro. He encouraged and fueled the devastating fires,” said panel judge Rawan Dawan, director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. “Bolsonaro campaigned on an explicit pledge to exploit — i.e. destroy — the Amazon, which currently provides 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen.”
Populists causing Damage
“That is the central theme of the year,” said Louise Shelley, the Director of the transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University who was on the award panel. “They are all populists causing great damage to their countries, regions, and the world. Unfortunately they are supported by many which is the key of populism”.
Bolsonaro has been accused of collecting salaries for phantom employees — a practice known as salary splitting. But the judges chose him because of the extreme form of hypocrisy he has exhibited — he came to power with the promise to fight corruption but he has not only surrounded himself with corrupt people, he has wrongly accused many of his political adversaries of corruption. “Bolsonaro’s family and his inner circle seem to be involved in an ongoing criminal conspiracy and have been regularly accused of stealing from the people,” said Drew Sullivan, editor of OCCRP and a judge on the panel. “That’s the textbook definition of an organized crime gang.”
● His son Carlos, a Rio de Janeiro councilman, is being investigated for a salary splitting scheme in the city. Jair’s ex-wife is also being implicated in a salary splitting scheme.
● His son Flavio and other associates are involved in a long-simmering scandal involving his son’s activities as a congressman where he allegedly ran a corruption racket that laundered money and committed fraud.
● More sinister, Flavio hired the family members of a man accused of running a paramilitary death squad that has violently taken over swathes of Rio de Janeiro through violence and summary executions including the murder of a black LGBT Rio councilwoman.
● When key figures in the country’s legal and anti-corruption agencies investigated his son Flavio, Bolsonaro orchestrated their departures leaving those organizations in chaos.
● Key allies and his son Eduardo were investigated for running a propaganda campaign to mislead citizens about issues from COVID to corruption