After Roberto Jefferson shot and injured Federal Police agents sent to arrest him, supporters and sections of international media alike have attempted to erase the ex-congressman’s deep, long standing relationship with Jair Bolsonaro, and their collaboration during the 2022 election campaign.
By Alex Fleck
Jair Bolsonaro and Roberto Jefferson are long-time allies. Now that Jefferson threw grenades and shot at federal police, Bolsonaro is trying to erase this history, but they go way back. The far-right Brazilian president has tried to distance himself from hid ally. First, he lied about not having even a single photo taken with Jefferson. Then, after Sunday’s attacks, the liberal party presidential candidate recorded a short 17 second video for social media condemning the act. The footage looks more like a hostage video than something from a political campaign. The poor aesthetics and inauthenticity was lost on some, however. In a bizarre analysis, Brian Winter, the US based analyst from Council of Americas, called the response “disciplined”.
Social media automated accounts (bots) and Bolsonaro-connected influencers quickly began tweeting the same decades-old picture of Roberto Jefferson next to Lula to try and further erase the connections between the right wing allies. Bolsonaro and his social media militia can try to deny all they want, but his political finger prints are all over Jefferson and his attempted murders. Bolsonaro and Jefferson have a decades old relationship that involves their families, potential corruption, the coup against Dilma Rousseff, and even a fake presidential candidacy. And if all of this was not enough, Bolsonaro was even responsible for purposefully creating the loophole that allowed Jefferson to purchase the rifle he shot police with.
The Jeffersons and the Bolsonaros
The Jefferson and Bolsonaro families have a long relationship that goes beyond just photos, the occasional campaign event or messages of support. Their families have built a political history together. Roberto Jefferson joined his current party, PTB, in the 1980s and has been in the leadership of the party on and off for the last 3 decades. While Jefferson was only the formal president of the party between 2003 and 2005, it is not an exaggeration to say that he is de facto in charge of the party. Currently, Jefferson is named as the “honorary president” of PTB, but the president, Marcus Ferreira, is his former son in law.
Jair Bolsonaro himself became a member of PTB precisely when Jefferson became the leader of the party in 2003. Both of them were congressmen from the Rio de Janeiro State. The connections between the Bolsonaro and Jefferson families run much deeper. Jair Bolsonaro’s son soon started working for Jefferson and the leadership of PTB. Eduardo, Jair’s 3rd son, a current congress person and Tucker Carlson favorite, was hired in 2003 to work full-time as a congressional staffer by the PTB’s lower house leadership. The choice seems, it’s safe to say, personally motivated as Eduardo was hardly an experience or incredibly qualified candidate for the job. He was only 18 at the time, fresh out of high school and enrolled in law school in Rio. (Law is a 5yr bachelor’s degree in Brazil). Even though he was studying law full-time in Rio, his also full-time job was in Brasilia, 750 Miles away. The college freshman was paid at the time over 50 thousand reais a year, an amount equivalent to 16 times Brazil’s then minimum wage, for 16 months.
Jefferson and the witch hunt against Lula and the PT
Roberto Jefferson, an elected congressman from the same state as Jair – Rio de Janeiro -, was the then leader of PTB in Congress. Only months after Eduardo left, Jefferson was engulfed in a corruption and money laundering scandal involving the Brazilian postal service. At the time, a postal service employee was recorded on video asking for kickbacks from contractors for Jefferson’s party.
Jefferson threatened to take action and revenge against the Lula government if they allowed a parliamentary inquiry against him to start. Most parties from the PTB coalition withdrew their support from the inquiry, however, Lula’s worker’s party (PT) refused to be bullied, kept their support and guaranteed the creation of the committee that would investigate Jefferson. The PTB president, in turn, made good on his threat and became the whistle-blower for what would be the Mensalao investigation, the first effort to try and pin corruption charges against Lula. Jefferson was later convicted of corruption and money laundering, expelled from Congress, and jailed. Jair Bolsonaro, on the very next day, went to the floor of the Brazilian lower house to publicly lament Jefferson’s expulsion from Congress.
Jefferson’s PTB would return to prominence and their paths would publicly intersect again in the immediate aftermath of Dilma Rousseff’s win at the 2014 presidential elections. After defeating her rival at the polls, Rousseff faced anti-democratic opposition from both inside and outside Brazil’s political institutions. One of the coordinators and faces of these movements was the vice-leader of the then massive coalition that included PTB, Cristiane Brasil, Roberto Jefferson’s daughter. Cristiane took over control of the party whilst her father was in jail. She, along with Jair Bolsonaro, House Speaker Eduardo Cunha and then Vice President Michel Temer were the organizers and planners of the street protests and congressional procedural manoeuvres that resulted in the coup against Rousseff in 2016. Jair Bolsonaro, also a congress person at the time, took the opportunity to pay homage to Rousseff’s torturer, Brilhante Ustra. Soon after the coup, Cristiane helped to quash Temer’s own articles of impeachment due to corruption allegations. She was rewarded afterwards by being appointed by now President Temer as Labor Secretary, only to have her nomination blocked because she was notorious for violating labor laws and had several legal proceedings against her.
After Temer finished what should have been Rousseff’s term in 2018, Bolsonaro was elected president. Cristiane Brasil came off the national spotlight after losing her re-election bid, however, she soon found a job working in the mayoral administration of a Bolsonaro ally, Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical pastor in the city of Rio. After the Crivella administration was engulfed in a corruption scandal, Cristiane left and announced support for his opponent, Eduardo Paes.
The betrayal of the Bolsonaro ally did not go unnoticed and she was denounced publicly by her own father. Jefferson sided with the Bolsonaros and eventually expelled her from the party.
Jefferson, Bolsonaro and the 2022 election
During most of the pre-election period, while Bolsonaro was looking for a new party so he could run for President, Jefferson tried to lure the long-time ally to PTB. Bolsonaro opted to join the liberal party due to its larger size, financial resources and TV time. Jefferson, however, could better serve Bolsonaro in a different way. Jefferson began promoting his own candidacy for presidency. Rather than attacking the current president, Jefferson actually praised Bolsonaro and said that PTB was, in fact, the only party that supported Bolsonaro in every single state of the country. The purpose of Jefferson running himself would soon become clear: PTB was running only to attack Bolsonaro’s opponents and to pay compliments to his administration. Jefferson’s candidacy was blocked by Brazil’s electoral court because he had previously been convicted of corruption and money laundering. Forced to abdicate, Jefferson appointed his hand picked replacement: self-named priest “Padre Kelmon”. If it was initially unclear why then Jefferson would choose to run himself, this would soon become obvious. In the most important debate of the first round, Kelmon dedicated himself to insulting and badgering Lula all that he could with culture war rhetoric and red scare-type propaganda. At points of the debate, his disrespect and complete disregard for the rules of the debate even had Globo conservative news anchor William Bonner reprehend him for non-stop talking over Lula and an overall lack of civility.
After the debate, multiple journalists noted that Kelmon had been talking, strategizing, and even exchanging notes with the Bolsonaros during the commercial breaks. Furthermore, Bolsonaro is also connected to how his ally came into the possession of such dangerous weapons. There are still conflicting reports about just how many weapons were in possession of Jefferson, but the former congressman shot at federal police using an assault rifle-style weapon that has only become legal for civilians to own after Bolsonaro came to power.
It was the current government that created the necessary conditions for Sunday’s attack to take place. This is because, in an attempt to fulfill his campaign promises and to appease the powerful gun lobby, Bolsonaro’s administration created the CAC (Collectors, Shooters and Hunters) loophole. This purposeful measure passed by Bolsonaro allows any civilian to purchase equipment previously restricted to police and armed forces simply by registering at a shooting range as a CAC. Rather than a special permission for a small number of people to own a limited amount of guns, the Bolsonaro loophole greatly expanded the quantity of weapons and bullets CACs are allowed to own, as well as completely removed most requirements for CACs. This has resulted in six-fold increase in the number of people enrolled as collectors, from around 117 thousand in 2018 to over 673 thousand in July 2022.
Bolsonaro’s actions have created this explosion of the number of weapons in the hands of untrained, ill-prepared civilians. This, coupled with his red scare campaigning, undemocratic rhetoric, disregard for civility and attacks against the judiciary have created an extremely volatile and dangerous context. Jair Bolsonaro may try and hide it but Roberto Jefferson is his henchman and he might as well have personally given him the gun.