Why Bolsonaro investigates anti-fascists? Political surveillance and authoritarianism in Brazil

August 12, 2020

At the end of July 2020, it was revealed by UOL that the Secretariat of Integrated Operations (Seopi) of the Ministry of Justice (MJ) secretly produced a dossier on 579 people. Among them, public security officials and intellectuals, investigated for alleged links with anti-fascist groups or positions critical to the Bolsonaro government.

The dossier contains various information about the people investigated, with photographs and, in some cases, their photos and the addresses of their social networks. The report was forwarded by the MJ to the President’s cabinet of the Presidency, the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), the Federal Police (PF), the Army Information Center, as well as other organs of the federal and state administrations.

Seopi’s investigation began in early June, after the release of the manifesto “Anti-fascism Policemen in Defense of Popular Democracy,” signed by 503 public security officials. The signatories of the document positioned themselves against “threats of institutional democratic destabilization in our country” and advocated a “commitment to true democracy.

But why would the government investigate people who defend democratic stability? And also, why would the identification of the public servants with anti-fascism raise concern?

Contextualizing the dossier

The manifesto that gave rise to Seopi’s investigation was published amidst heightened institutional tensions.

After accusations of Jair Bolsonaro interfering with the Federal Police, Federal Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello sent requests to the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) from Political parties and congressmen to seize the mobile phone of the president and councilman Carlos Bolsonaro. This was a routine procedural request, which had to be admitted to or rejected by the Attorney General after analysis.

However, the request to the PGR was received with outrage by the Palácio do Planalto. A note from the Office of Institutional Security (GSI) mentioned “unpredictable consequences for institutional stability,” if the request were to be answered. Recently, Piauí magazine revealed that the note originated from a meeting in which Bolsonaro had decided to intervene and occupy the STF with troops. Being dissuaded by their Justices, they decided to publish the document.

The note, signed by the GSI Justice, retired General Augusto Heleno, was received with concern by civil society entities. The police officers’ manifesto in “defense of popular democracy” (which would give rise to the Seopi investigation) was among the various responses that saw a threatening tone in the document.

In addition, there is evidence of systematic ideological persecution of public servants:

(i) there has been an increase in reports of moral harassment in several ministries;

(ii) the CGU published a note stating that the public servant could be punished for criticism to the governmen; and

(iii) more recently, there has been the cancellation of Abin agents’ travel to embassies, apparently for political reasons.

The dossier is set in this context: amidst institutional tensions and growing evidence of political persecution of public servants.

Who is investigating? Why investigate? And who is being investigated?

Before the Bolsonaro government, coordinating body of the Ministry of Justice. The agency’s main objective was to articulate criminal investigations between federal and police forces, focusing on crimes of sexual exploitation and child pornography.

On the first day of its mandate, Bolsonaro signed a series of decrees restructuring the federal administration. In the midst of them, it went unnoticed that Seopi was given the function of “stimulating and inducing the investigation of criminal infractions, in an integrated and uniform manner with the federal and civil police”. A vague competence that would enable the agency to acquire a broad investigative competence – culminating in the June dossier.

Seopi’s activities generate concern. As Rubens Valente pointed out, it is a hybrid intelligence apparatus between the Union and the States, which “transits in a grey area“, with little transparency about its competencies and outside the control of civil society. There is also no transparency about the type of information to which it has access and the legitimacy of these investigations, since it acts without the formal existence of police inquiries.

However, another factor has contributed to the recent investigation of state agents by the secretariat. In December 2019, the then Justice Sérgio Moro made Seopi part of the Brazilian Intelligence System (SISBIN). Moro’s decision made it possible for Seopi to share information with more than 40 Brazilian intelligence agencies, as occurred in the case of the dossier.

Finally, with Sérgio Moro’s resignation from the MJ, in April, André Mendonça took over the Ministry. Upon assuming office, Mendonça would have required Seopi to investigate “movements that could put at risk the political stability of the Bolsonaro government,” expressly guiding that “detailed reports of individuals monitored” be produced.

Thus was developed the investigation that generated the dossier. Amid institutional tensions and indications of the use of the intelligence apparatus for political persecutions, the document was produced to identify people who recognize themselves as anti-fascists or are critical of the government. Its result would enable monitoring of public servants through sharing information with intelligence and public security agencies.

In response to the repercussions caused by the revelation of the dossier, the Ministry of Justice fired the head of Seopi’s Intelligence Directorate – retired Colonel Gilson Libório.

After refusing to deliver the report to the STF, Justice André Mendonça admitted that it existed at a hearing in the Joint Intelligence Commission of Congress and stated that he would deliver it to the Commission. However, he has not yet clarified what threat these 579 people pose in order to justify the investigation.

Is is possible to make a parallel to the authoritarian period?

In an interview after the release of the dossier, Luiz Eduardo Soares, an anthropologist, former National Public Security Secretary and one of the three academics investigated, started that: “The recreation of the old NIS is no longer the dream of Bolsonaro but the nightmare of Brazilian society.

What would be the parallel between Seopi’s actions and the National Intelligence Service (NIS)?

The NIS was the main intelligence and counterintelligence body of the military dictatorship, “the central piece in the apparatus that articulated espionage and the police forces of repression”. With the process of redemocratization, the NIS was extinguished in 1990. Later, in the FHC government, its functions as a state intelligence agency were assigned to Abin.

In addition to its state functions, the NIS produced investigations into the ideological position, subversive activity, and functional efficiency of public agents. With a structure infiltrated into state agencies, universities, and private companies, NIS agents monitored, investigated, and pursued individuals who expressed values contrary to those of the regime.

It is worth noting that at the ministerial meeting of April 22, Bolsonaro expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of information from official intelligence agencies and implied that he had a parallel intelligence system.

In this context, the object of the dossier and the method of action of Seopi allow a clear parallel between the actions developed by the body of the MJ and the NIS during the military dictatorship. Both produced obscure and pervasive investigations into public agents critical of the government, leading to.

In such a way, whether the production of this dossier is a systematic action of the Ministry of Justice under the command of Mendonça or an isolated matter (as the Justice seems to allege), it is not only a violation of the rights of these individuals, but an evident threat to the constitutional project inaugurated in 1988. Persecution due to political convictions is not compatible with the function of an intelligence system in democracy, being typical of authoritarian governments.

In view of this conclusion, it is worthy to make new reference to Luiz Eduardo Soares, now as an admonition, this time as a form of warning: “The infiltration of fascism takes place everywhere, eroding the pillars of democracy.”

By Ana Carolina Rezende Oliveira [1], Felipe Guimarães [2] e Henrique Oliveira [3].

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[1] PhD candidate in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Master of Laws at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Researcher associated to CJT – UFMG.

[2] PhD candidate in Law at King’s College London (KCL). Master of Laws from KCL and UFMG. Researcher associated with the Brazil Institute – KCL and the CJT – UFMG.

[3] Undergraduate student in Law at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG). Volunteer Extensionist at CJT – UFMG.