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Brazil: How pro-Bolsonaro supporters crowdfunded the insurrection

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 January 8. He then thanked his patrons.

“I’ve got money in the bank,” he said, as he live-streamed
Brazil’s worst political crisis in a generation.

“Thanks to you, dear patriots… who helped us, lots of friends sponsoring us
with Pix.”

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 January 8. 

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.

“We have a secure and consistent line of investigation
focused on tracking financial movements undertaken via Pix,”
said a senior federal police officer involved in the sprawling,
nationwide investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity to
discuss an ongoing probe. “The financiers’ time is up.”

READ MORE: Top Brazil court greenlights probe of Bolsonaro for Brasilia rampage

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 prioritise 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.

READ MORE: Brazil arrests Bolsonaro ally over Brasilia rampage

The success of Pix 

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. 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 $3 trillion (16 trillion reals) 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 percent 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 October 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”.

“Many influencers and some everyday folks there financed
themselves exclusively via Pix,” Suzin said.

READ MORE: Brazil’s Lula claims Brasilia rioters likely had inside help

Investigative trial

Police, money-laundering experts and central bank officials
said Pix donations will be central to investigators’ efforts to
uncover who orchestrated the insurrection. Several officials
requested anonymity to discuss the probes underway.

“It’s an extremely powerful tool within that investigative
context, and I have no doubt it will be used,” said Bernardo
Mota, a former official at the Council for Financial Activities
Control (Coaf), Brazil’s financial intelligence unit.

Pix transfers are covered by bank secrecy laws, and police
can only access a suspect’s transaction history with judicial

Although Pix does not offer more traceability than previous
systems, experts said the fact it is administered by the central
bank removes a layer of bureaucracy, allowing investigators to
sidestep dealing with private banks.

That is particularly useful in an investigation such as this
one, Mota said, with a need to quickly trace what could be
hundreds or even thousands of different financiers across Brazil.

READ MORE: ‘Vile attack’: Global leaders condemn assault on Brazil govt buildings

One of the most common types of Pix keys is a person’s phone
number, offering investigators a shortcut to seek wiretaps and
subpoena chat records.

The central bank said in a statement that “all Pix
operations are traceable,” adding that it “always works closely
with the competent authorities in the investigation of any
crimes involving the financial system.”

Pix has its investigative drawbacks, experts said. With a
growing share of daily transactions now carried out over the
system, it may be time-consuming for investigators to separate
suspicious transfers from everyday spending.

A current central bank official said a slew of new financial
technology companies and digital payment processors had
increased access to banking in Brazil, while also making it
easier to open an account with little or even false information.

With Pix, protestors could “gather resources for everything
we needed,” said Oswaldo Eustaquio, another high-profile
Bolsonarista. “Money was never a problem for us.”

READ MORE: Brazil frees nearly 600 after capital riots

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