Brazil’s popular justice minister on Friday quit Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, dealing a blow to the president and raising fresh questions about political stability in Latin America’s largest country.
Sérgio Moro, a former judge, was for years the face of Brazil’s Lava Jato, or “Car Wash”, anti-corruption investigation — a sweeping probe that put scores of politicians and businessmen behind bars and propelled the magistrate to his position at the justice ministry last year.
Wildly popular among the country’s rightwing — most notably for incarcerating former leftwing leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2018 ahead of the presidential election — Mr Moro was a pillar of Mr Bolsonaro’s popularity, and his support helped the far-right populist leader win the presidency.
His departure amid claims of political interference in police work is likely to fuel concerns about the stability of the administration. The president is already sparring with most of Brazil’s political establishment over his repeated flouting of health guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Last week, he fired his popular health minister who favoured social isolation.
The Bovespa stock index dropped 8 per cent and Brazil’s currency weakened to a record low of 5.71 against the dollar on the news.
Mr Moro’s resignation was prompted by a decision by the Brazilian president on Thursday to sack Maurício Valeixo, the country’s federal police chief, who was appointed by the former justice minister.
Mr Bolsonaro did not explain why he fired the police chief, an action that typically would not be taken by a president.
Observers believe Mr Valeixo’s dismissal was related to ongoing police investigations into family members of the president for their alleged links to Rio de Janeiro’s underworld, as well as their suspected targeting of political heavyweights with digital “fake news”.
“The president told me, more than once, he wants his own contact person, who he can call to gather intelligence reports, and that’s really not the job of the federal police to do this type of work,” said Mr Moro on Friday as he announced his resignation.
“I’ve tried to avoid a political crisis in the midst of the pandemic, which is where the focus should be, but it is my duty to protect the rule of law.”
Mr Moro joined the Bolsonaro administration at its formation in January last year with plans to overhaul Brazil’s criminal justice system. His reforms, however, were mostly bogged down in Congress, and the minister cut a solitary figure in recent months.
As a federal judge at the height of the Car Wash investigation, Mr Moro was a celebrity figure in Brazil. Alongside prosecutors in the southern city of Curitiba, Mr Moro investigated a vast contracts-for-kickbacks scheme that ensnared scores of politicians as well as some of the country’s biggest companies, including construction group Odebrecht and state-run oil company Petrobras.
The probe, which was named after the petrol station where the money laundering investigation began, rocked Latin America’s political establishment. In addition to the arrest of Mr da Silva in Brazil, the probe implicated several former presidents of Peru, one of whom shot himself as police were about to arrest him.
The Car Wash probe, however, suffered reputational damage last year following a series of leaks that cast doubt on Mr Moro’s impartiality and independence as a federal judge.
Despite this, Mr Moro was the most trusted politician in Brazil, according to a Datafolha poll released in January. Analysts believe the former judge harbours presidential ambitions.