Brazilian Organized Crime Has a Close Friend in Jair Bolsonaro

Brazil is governed by a president with well-documented links to Rio’s mafias. In order to understand Jair Bolsonaro’s rise, it is key to understand the link between his brutal law-and-order politics and the increasing stranglehold of organized crime over Rio.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro speaks with press at the official residence during the coronavirus pandemic at the Palácio da Alvorada on March 25, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Andressa Anholete / Getty Images)

COVID-19 aside, much of Brazil’s 2020 political drama has revolved around President Jair Bolsonaro’s institution-bending efforts to shield his family from investigations in Rio de Janeiro, their home state. In April, his erstwhile “super-judge,” justice minister Sérgio Moro, resigned, alleging presidential interference with the federal police. More recently, chaos has reigned in the office of Brazil’s prosecutor general, Augusto Aras, a Bolsonaro ally whose decisions have constantly favored the president and his sons.

Central to Bolsonaro’s activity in Rio de Janeiro is a family aide named Fabrício Queiroz. Queiroz’s friendship with the president dates back to 1984 when he served as an army recruit under Bolsonaro. On leaving the army, Queiroz joined Rio’s military police. He remained friends with the future president and worked for his eldest son, current senator Flávio Bolsonaro, between 2007 and 2018 after joining his parliamentary team in the Rio state assembly on leave from the police. While his role was apparently to provide security for the politician, Queiroz was essentially Flávio’s right-hand man for more than a decade.

The role of Queiroz as the Bolsonaro family’s “Mr Fix-It” has come under intense scrutiny following numerous alarming allegations: that he ran a “ghost” employee scheme for Flávio, who siphoned off salaries of no-show employees for personal use; that he was involved with paramilitary police militias; and his (and Flávio’s) association with Adriano da Nóbrega, the now-dead suspected founder of the death squad believed to have carried out the assassination of socialist Rio city council member Marielle Franco in 2018.

Such revelations turn Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 anti-corruption, law-and-order presidential campaigning platform upside down, exposing his family’s proximity to entrenched, intertwined political and criminal interests that have deep roots in Rio de Janeiro. No recent incident has revealed the reach of such interests more starkly than Franco’s murder.

Orlando de Curicica, a former policeman, was falsely accused of ordering Franco’s murder in a fabricated setup to protect the real culprits. His statement below, made to reporters, helped blow the lid on the cover-up and reveal the extent to which organized crime penetrates Rio’s police and state.

What I have to say, nobody would like to hear: there is a battalion of murderers acting for money in Rio today, most of them coming from contravention. The Homicide Police and the head of the Civil Police know who they are, but they receive money from “contraventores” not to touch or direct the investigations, thus creating a network of protection so that the contravention kills whoever it wants. Tell me, in recent years, which murder case has targeted a “contraventor”?

Central to this corruption is the “jogo do bicho,” or “contravenção” as referred to here by Curicica, Rio’s illegal gambling mafias. Comprehending the reach of these groups is key to understanding organized crime in Brazil and its increasing hold over the state. Prominent assassins like Adriano da Nóbrega, suspected of working for jogo do bicho operators, are connected to both the Bolsonaro family and the murder of Marielle Franco.

A woman wears a T-shirt asking, “Who ordered Marielle killed?” during a special congressional session on the murder of Marielle Franco in Brasília, Brazil on March 18, 2019. (Mídia NINJA / Flickr)

The Jogo do Bicho

The jogo do bicho (“animal game”) is an illegal lottery played across Brazil, akin to numbers rackets in the United States. It originated in Rio de Janeiro over a century ago, and tickets can be bought today on street corners across the city and country. Players bet on sequences of numbers based on twenty-five animals. Bets can be simple, on one or more animals, or on complex combinations of numbers. The bettor can bet as much or as little as they wish. For the simplest bets, odds are low, and players have a more reasonable chance of winning than they would in an official lottery.

For the millions who play the game, the jogo do bicho is part of everyday life. Yet despite its apparent simplicity, to bet on the lottery is to participate in a time-honored process that enables corruption and undermines social progress in Brazil.

Freethinking entrepreneur João Drummond (known as Baron Drummond) invented the jogo do bicho in 1892, at a moment of dramatic change in Rio de Janeiro, in order to raise funds for a zoo. Initial prohibition of the game rose out of an unclear stance by the authorities on what constituted criminal activity, reflecting a need to control and regulate popular practices. This criminalization created an underground illegal economy and network of relationships which nourished the activity. Juridical ambiguity and an inconsistent approach by the authorities contributed to a failure to stop its growth.

Full criminalization of all gambling across Brazil in 1946 saw the rise of powerful jogo do bicho bankers in the 1950s and 1960s, initiating a new golden era for the lottery. These bankers not only now controlled the lottery, but all illegal gambling rackets in Brazil, such as casinos, bingos, and later, electronic gaming machines.

The 1960s were tumultuous in Rio de Janeiro. The national capital was transferred to Brasília, and for the next fifteen years the city became known as Guanabara before its rebirth as the capital of Rio de Janeiro state in 1975. During these years, the jogo do bicho thrived in the shadows, according to historian Matthew Vaz: “The illegal numbers game in Rio repeatedly surfaced in the political discourse as a problematic source of political and police corruption, a potentially useful stream of revenue for government projects, and an entrenched social practice tied into the larger landscape [. . .] at every turn it intersected with political and economic events, coloring Brazilian law, politics, economic exchange and social relations with ambiguity and inconsistency.”

While the city attempted to come to terms with lost revenue and stature, the illegal lottery bosses grew stronger. They financed public works and lined political pockets. They weathered crackdowns. By now, a few prominent bankers began to emerge as major players. Most famous was Castor de Andrade. This private school–educated law graduate, a “gentleman” from a traditional suburban family, expanded his practice to new dimensions, acquiring metal works, petrol stations, and a fish factory. He even steered his local football team, the humble Bangu Atlético Clube, to victory in the 1966 state championships.

Under the 1964–1984 dictatorship, Castor and his friends formed an alliance with the junta. The bankers, known locally as bicheiros learned from the military and centralized their operations.

Links between the jogo do bicho and state repression against the Left and the working class were further cemented in the 1970s. Middle-ranking members of the military-intelligence apparatus migrated from the dictatorship to the jogo do bicho infrastructure.

One man who capitalized on this moment was Captain Ailton Guimarães. Captain Guimarães came to prominence in 1969 as part of a team that killed an eighteen-year-old dissident named Eremias Delizoicov. Before Delizoicov died — with thirty-three bullet perforations — he managed to wound two of his would-be captors, including Guimarães, who he shot in the leg. For his efforts, Guimarães won the Medalha do Pacificador, a tribute meted out to regime darlings. Official reports described him as honest, spontaneous, dedicated, and versatile. He was also a proficient torturer, who instructed others in the practice.

During these years, criminality among military agents was common. Guimarães drifted from anti-subversive activities toward contraband, specifically extortion of smugglers. Eventually, he was denounced, investigated, captured, and tortured by his own colleagues. His reputation as an incorruptible agent of repression in tatters, Captain Guimarães transformed his network of crooked officials for introduction to major players in the jogo do bicho.

Carnival and Politics

The jogo do bicho has long been key to both Rio politics and the city’s Carnival. The Sessim David clan have controlled politics in Rio’s outlying Nilópolis suburb for four decades. Anísio David is patron of the Beija-Flor (“hummingbird”) Samba School. Samba schools are the unique social and cultural collectives that parade in official competition at Carnival. The schools, which began life in the 1930s and 1940s, grew out of poverty. They needed discipline, hierarchy, organization, and funding, and could not survive without external intervention.

The canny bicheiros were quick to realize the potential of such idiosyncratic organizations. Patronage of schools provided them with a formidable social structure with which to negotiate strategic partnerships on their own terms and a means of exploiting the universal popularity of Carnival to camouflage their interests. They used the schools to form all manner of relationships that worked in their favor, both “upward” with politicians, the media, and businesses, and “downward,” garnering popular support and a potential electoral base. Patronage also allowed jogo do bicho bankers to portray themselves as social entrepreneurs with a genuine interest in supporting and developing the lives of the poor.

While his “cousins,” the Sessim David family, went into politics, providing him with extra protection when necessary, Anísio used the samba school to eulogize the military regime. In 1973, 1974, and 1975, Beija-Flor celebrated Carnival in the form of direct tributes to the junta, and generals partied in Nilópolis. The sambas were pure propaganda, earning Beija-Flor the nickname, “the Official School of the Dictatorship.”

Beija-Flor de Nilópolis, 1998. (Wikimedia Commons)

Using political clout, Anísio ensured that the Arena, the junta’s party, always won Nilopolitan elections. Military intelligence conducted a campaign against rival mayors and councilors in the region, accusing them of corruption and clearing the way for the Sessim and Abraão clans, leaving Anísio free to take over the jogo do bicho in the Baixada Fluminense. He reciprocated by finding work for former officials in his business structures and even at Beija-Flor where they worked as security men. These employees included torturers who consequently infected life at the samba school with fear and their dirty-war ethos.

In the 1980s Anísio, Castor de Andrade, and Captain Guimarães cofounded a managing committee — along the lines of a mafia-style cupola — for the jogo do bicho. The trio also secured total control of Rio’s Carnival parade when they founded LIESA, the independent league of samba schools. LIESA still runs the parade today. In 2012, Anísio, Captain Guimarães, and another (today deceased) member of the cupola, Turcão, were condemned to forty-seven years in prison each. Although they were briefly detained, the jail sentences soon evaporated after legal appeals, house arrests, and petitions of ill health.

In 2018, now senator Flávio Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president’s eldest son, canvassed for votes in Nilópolis alongside Anísio David’s brother Farid, mayor of Nilópolis, and Simão Sessim, Anísio’s cousin. Simão Sessim held a congressional seat in Brasilía for forty years. After failing to win reelection in 2018, Sessim was appointed official representative for Rio’s state government in Brasília.

Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Flávio. (Wikimedia Commons).

The jogo do bicho and illegal police death squads have long dominated politics and conducted lethal social cleansing campaigns against opponents in the Baixada Fluminense and beyond. This model — a fusion of territorial control, organized crime, and traditional politics — has been appropriated by paramilitary groups, known locally as militias, which operate today in more than half of Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhoods. In addition to its innate criminality, these operations stifle human rights activism and coherent political mobilization, setting alarm bells ringing for democracy in Brazil. Fernando de Barros e Silva, former editor of Brazil’s Piauí magazine, a respected current affairs monthly, wrote earlier this year that “Bolsonarism represents the victory of the militia model of managing Brazilian violence.”

War in Rio’s West Zone

When the debonair Castor de Andrade died of a heart attack during a card game in 1997, his death sparked a family dispute and lethal power struggle. Castor had a son, Paulinho, involved in the family business. Paulinho had a playboy reputation and was nowhere near as popular as his father. When Castor died, his gambling operation in Rio’s sprawling West Zone district was supposed to pass onto his more business-minded nephew, Rogério. When Paulinho refused to hand the operation over, Rogério, allegedly, had him killed.

The murder triggered a war over the family empire. Castor’s son-in-law stepped into the fray. Rogério traveled with a large security detail and seemed untouchable. But in 2010, enemies nearly got him with a daylight car bomb that brought panic to the affluent West Zone Barra neighborhood. Rogério survived the attack. His seventeen-year-old son Diogo, who took the wheel that morning, died on the spot.

The assassination attempt involved men close to Rogério. These included his own head of security, a sergeant in the fire brigade who, a few months later and reportedly on Rogério’s orders, was shot and killed while riding his Harley Davidson. At the time of the car bomb, federal police estimated the turnover for the West Zone electronic gambling machine business at $5 million a month. Organizers forced bar and bakery owners to install virtual poker units on their premises. The machines meant more profit, less paperwork, and less daily stress. The venomous de Andrade family dispute even divided Rio’s civil police force, with different groups of police aligning themselves to either side.

These years saw the fortification and further emergence of the militias, usually linked to police and fire services, across the West Zone. These groups divided up and dominated entire neighborhoods, charging residents for security and provision of basic services such as gas, water, and electricity and promoting their preferred candidates come election time. Without the firm hand of Castor, the “gentleman” godfather who had reigned for decades, quarreling bicheiros, police factions, and militias transformed western Rio de Janeiro into a war zone.

A key player in this conflict was ex-policeman Ronnie Lessa, who had retired after losing a leg in a car bomb attack in 2009. The bomb had detonated underneath his personal vehicle as he drove home from work. At the time of the car bomb incident, Lessa reportedly worked as a hired gun for Rogério Andrade. Detectives believed that whoever bombed Lessa also planted the explosive that killed Rogério’s son a year later in 2010. Someone had also wanted Lessa out of the way.

Today, Ronnie Lessa is in custody, accused of firing the bullets that killed Franco in 2018. Somewhat extraordinarily, prior to his arrest, Lessa lived in Barra Villas — the same gated community as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Prosecutors believe that Lessa and his alleged accomplice met there the night they are thought to have killed Marielle.

Lessa was much more than a gunman. He was a militia leader who operated several drinking water distribution networks across the city. The 2019 seizure of 117 machine guns at his friend’s house exposed him as one of Rio’s leading arms traffickers. He also ran illegal bingo activity in Barra. In October 2018, he was recorded negotiating the return of electronic gambling machines seized in a raid with one of Barra’s highest-ranking civil policemen. As a retired policeman, Lessa also received a monthly state pension. As a gunman, prosecutors believe he was a key member of The Office of Crime, a group of former police who worked as assassins, principally for the jogo do bicho.

In February 2020 police in the northeastern state of Bahia killed another suspected member of The Office of Crime, Adriano da Nóbrega. A former military policeman, he had long-standing links to both the Bolsonaro family and organized crime in Rio de Janeiro. He was very close to Flávio Bolsonaro, and appears to have participated in a corruption scheme run out of Flávio’s parliamentary office when he was a Rio state politician. Flávio employed members of Adriano’s family and even admitted that the Nóbrega gave him shooting lessons. Adriano rose to prominence in Rio de Janeiro working as a bodyguard and alleged killer for the Garcia family, one of Rio’s most violent jogo do bicho clans.

The old jogo do bicho lottery, represented innocuously in the Brazilian popular imagination by an innocent bet on a street corner, is in reality a well-maintained façade for a bewildering, complex array of illegal activities and economic, cultural, and political interests. Today, the country is governed by a president with well-documented links to Rio’s mafias. In order to understand Bolsonaro’s rise, it is key to understand the link between his supposed law-and-order politics — which in practice merely encourage violence against Brazil’s poor and dark-skinned populations — and the increasing stranglehold of organized crime over Rio.