RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Weeks ahead of Brazil’s presidential election, police carried out search warrants Tuesday targeting several business leaders who allegedly participated in a private chat group that included comments favoring a possible coup and military involvement in politics.
The search and seizure warrants were issued by a Supreme Court justice who heads the nation’s electoral authority, according to a statement from the federal police. They were aimed at prominent supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, according to two of the people whose properties were searched and an official with knowledge of the operation.
Many of the comments were speculative and appeared to reflect personal opinion rather than a coordinated effort to undermine Brazilian democracy. However, they fed into national jitters over whether Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated allegations that the electoral system is vulnerable to fraud were laying the groundwork for a power grab if the vote doesn’t go his way.
The first round of the election is Oct. 2, with a possible runoff Oct. 30 if no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes.
According to the official with knowledge of the searches, the warrants targeted eight businessmen who appeared in a story last week on the online news site Metropoles, which published screenshots from their chat group on the WhatsApp messaging app. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Many of the executives appearing in the Aug. 17 Metropoles story have since said they support democracy, and allies of Bolsonaro immediately decried the operation as judicial overreach.
In 2018, Bolsonaro’s swift rise from fringe lawmaker to presidential candidate was turbocharged by automated WhatsApp messages that companies sent to voters en masse.
In addition to issuing the search warrants, Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered the businessmen’s social media accounts be blocked and their bank accounts frozen, the online news site G1 reported. De Moraes also lifted seals on their banking records and authorized federal police to take depositions from the executives, the site reported.
“This is clearly an operation to intimidate any prominent figure from taking a political stand for Bolsonaro or against the left,” Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a federal lawmaker, said on Twitter. “This is an attack on democracy in the midst of an electoral campaign. Censorship. There’s no other word!”
In its Aug. 17 story, Metropoles said it had been monitoring the WhatsApp group titled “Businessmen & Politics” for months. It reproduced messages allegedly sent by owners of a popular restaurant chain, shopping malls and construction companies, among others, expressing their allegiance to Bolsonaro and backing the president’s claims that the judicial system is working against him.
Some also highlighted the benefits of authoritarian governance models.
“I prefer a coup to the return of the Workers’ Party. A million times more,” one of the members is seen saying on a published screenshot, referring to the leftist party of the election’s front-runner, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “And certainly no one will stop doing business with Brazil. As they do with several dictatorships around the world.”
The Associated Press was not able to confirm the authenticity of the screenshots.
Bolsonaro contends the electronic voting machines used in Brazil since the mid-1990s are prone to fraud, without providing any evidence. He has also said some members of the electoral authority are favoring da Silva, who leads all polls to return to the job he held from 2003 to 2010.
The Supreme Court said in an email that de Moraes’ decision to issue the warrants is under seal. The brief police statement mentioned eight warrants in five states.
Among the targeted executives is Luciano Hang, owner of Brazilian retailer Havan and a fervent Bolsonaro supporter, several news outlets reported. On his official Twitter account, Hang said the Metropoles story was “irresponsible” and had created a fake narrative. “I never talked about a coup,” he said.
Other members of the group were more talkative. “If the side that we defend is victorious, the blood of the victims becomes the blood of heroes!” one executive wrote.
Another expressed interest in the executives granting bonuses to their employees who vote for Bolsonaro, before another member informed him this would probably constitute vote buying.
Other business leaders, even those who support Bolsonaro, have been more cautious.
A gathering in Sao Paulo on Friday had dozens of top executives coming out in defense of democracy, a rare feature in previous Brazilian elections since the end of the military rule in 1985. Some of the executives in attendance work for the same companies of leaders who call for a coup.
“Big change goes through congress. The executive is the organizer, but the transformative policies are in congress,” Vander Giordano, a vice president at shopping malls company Multiplan, told journalists. “When you have a moderating center in congress, you have a better debate of ideas, looking at both sides. And that is no matter who wins the election. Our democracy is strong.”
João Cox, who sat on the board of several Brazilian companies, said more businessmen support Bolsonaro now than four years ago. Still, most believe there won’t be huge changes in the short term if da Silva wins. “My worry is more about the long run,” Cox said.
Several members backed Bolsonaro’s promise for a large military parade on Sept. 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, along Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. “I want to see if the Supreme Court has the courage to rig the elections after a military parade … with the troops applauded by the public,” one wrote.
The parade will “make it clear which side the Army is on,” another said.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes has said the military won’t parade, but rather hold a “limited” display there.
Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.