Brazil's crowdfunded insurrection leaves paper trail for police

January 17, 2023 6:10 am

[Source: Reuters]

With a Brazil flag draped around his neck and his feet propped up on a dark wooden table, Samuel Faria leaned back in the Brazilian Senate president’s ceremonial chair which he had just commandeered and surveyed the chaos on the lawn outside.

“It’s kicking off out there,” he said, watching from his Senate perch as fellow yellow-and-green-clad supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked government buildings in Brasilia on Jan. 8. He then thanked his patrons.

A wildly successful government-run payments system, Pix has become a key financial pillar underpinning Bolsonaro’s election-denial movement, allowing his most ardent fans to crowdfund their alternative media outlets and far-right demonstrations culminating in the chaos of Jan. 8.

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But now, as authorities seek to identify the funders of the Brasilia riots, the same tool that helped to forge the insurgent movement will be used by investigators to take it down, around a dozen police and anti-money laundering officials told Reuters.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who is leading the criminal probe into the insurrection, and Justice Minister Flavio Dino have said they plan to prioritize uncovering the financiers of the riots, who will likely face similar charges to the 1,398 arrested rioters. They are accused of crimes including terrorism and attempting a coup.

A federal cop working the Supreme Court probe said initial investigations suggested the insurrection was financed by farmers and trucking magnates from Bolsonaro strongholds in the interior of Brazil. However, police had yet to identify a big fish, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “Nobody of relevance yet.”

The federal police press office declined to comment about an active investigation.

Faria, the Senate invader from the city of Socorro, in Sao Paulo state, did not respond to a request for comment.

Launched in November 2020 and run by Brazil’s central bank, Pix is free of charge for individuals, allowing them to instantly transfer money to others via online banking apps.

It has been a huge success, used by everyone from beggars to billionaires. Since its launch, over 133 million Brazilians and almost 12 million companies have made or received Pix transfers, according to the central bank. Transactions to date have totaled around 16 trillion reais ($3 trillion) and outpaced debit and credit card payments last year.

Pix has entered all facets of Brazilian life, including the vast, unruly universe of blogs and YouTube channels that serve as a hotbed for Bolsonaro’s core supporters.

Pro-Bolsonaro influencers advertise their Pix “keys” on YouTube videos and Instagram livestreams, asking followers to send instant contributions to their bank accounts.

Enzo Leonardo Suzin, a conservative YouTuber known as Enzuh, said most of his income still came from ads, but Pix contributions now represented up to 20% of revenue.

“I always used crowdfunding to improve the quality of the channel,” said Suzin, who was targeted in 2020 by a Supreme Court probe into alleged fake news but has never been charged.

Pix has become ubiquitous thanks to the fact it is free and instantaneous. Its reach has been a boon to fundraisers, who can easily receive transfers from across Brazil.

Since President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva won the Oct. 30 election, Suzin had noticed Pix becoming widely used by the hardcore Bolsonaro supporters agitating for a coup in encampments outside military bases across Brazil, including the army headquarters in Brasilia.

Many of them had paused their lives and were using social media to solicit contributions from like-minded “patriots”.