Shadow state: In secret manoeuvres, Bolsonaro twisted Brazil's spycraft for personal gain

The shocking use of a parallel intelligence scheme against enemies, opponents, state

Bolsonaro-return Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters at the Liberal Party's headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil | AP

The ping of cellphone signals across Brazil popped up on maps as tiny dots catching Supreme Court justices, leading journalists, and leftist politicians in a surveillance dragnet that sucked in the locations of Bolsonaro's rivals as part of a covert spy ring, a Bolsonaro off-the-books intelligence machine tailored to the whims of the then-president of Brazil and his sons and unconstrained by law. Until now.

In January 2024, Brazilian authorities launched investigations into allegations that Jair Bolsonaro as president set up a parallel intelligence structure within the official Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN) to serve the interests of the Bolsonaro family instead of the Brazilian state.

The investigations centre around the alleged misuse of a powerful Israeli spy software called FirstMile during Bolsonaro’s presidency.

FirstMile is capable of geo-locating targets based on their cellphones and was ostensibly acquired by ABIN for national security purposes. However, authorities now suspect it was used by Bolsonaro allies to illegally monitor political opponents, journalists, Supreme Court justices, and even former Bolsonaro cabinet members who had fallen out of favor, allegations he denies.

Bolsonaro’s son, Rio de Janeiro councilman Carlos Bolsonaro, is accused of being one of the main beneficiaries and disseminators of the illegally obtained information. Carlos has long been his father’s pit bull on social media, attacking critics and spreading misinformation. Investigators believe Carlos likely received classified information collected by the “Parallel ABIN” to deploy against his father’s political enemies.

The revelations around the misuse of Brazilian intelligence agencies harken back to Brazil’s not so distant authoritarian past. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship that spied on and imprisoned dissidents. Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain and outspoken supporter of the former dictatorship, now stands accused of resurrecting its tactics to further his family’s personal gain and political interests.

The investigations into the “Parallel ABIN” apparatus led by Bolsonaro loyalists underscores concerns about the weakening of Brazilian democratic institutions after four years of a far-right presidency. The Bolsonaro family's alleged weaponisation of an intelligence agency designed to protect national security for their own gain also represents a dramatic abuse of power with chilling echoes of autocracy.

Origins of the 'Parallel ABIN' under Bolsonaro

The alleged “Parallel ABIN” structure took its roots soon after Bolsonaro assumed the presidency on January 1, 2019. One of his first moves was to appoint a close personal ally, Alexandre Ramagem, as director of ABIN. The two men had formed a bond when Ramagem secured Bolsonaro's safety as chief of his personal security detail during the 2018 presidential campaign.

Beyond personal loyalty, Ramagem's appointment was unusual given his lack of intelligence experience. The Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) noted that the ABIN role would be Ramagem’s first professional experience since joining the Federal Police as a cadet in 2005. Nevertheless, Bolsonaro made the neophyte the nation’s top spy chief.

Ramagem moved quickly to stock ABIN’s senior ranks with other Bolsonaro loyalists. Several of his appointees were former or current members of Bolsonaro’s security team, also with no intelligence credentials. According to the OAB, "ABIN was being led by people whose main —if not only— attribute was the personal connection and trust they had from President Bolsonaro and his family.”

Investigators now believe that under Ramagem’s leadership, a covert cell began operating within ABIN to serve the Bolsonaro family’s interests using the state’s advanced surveillance capabilities. In essence, ABIN became an espionage apparatus leveraged for the political gain of Bolsonaro and his sons.

FirstMile: The key to spying on Bolsonaro’s enemies

A key tool that enabled the “Parallel ABIN” to monitor targets was the FirstMile spyware system purchased from an Israeli company called Cognyte. It exploits vulnerabilities in cellphone networks to track the real-time location of nearly any cellphone in Brazil.

Bolsonaro allies within ABIN used FirstMile without any judicial oversight to illegally monitor over 33,000 cellphones during the Bolsonaro presidency, according to Federal Police.

Within ABIN, the FirstMile system was controlled by a tight circle of Ramagem appointees personally loyal to Bolsonaro. According to police, even most high-level ABIN officials were kept in the dark about the use of FirstMile, indicating it was an “off the books” operation.

Investigators are still piecing together the full scope of the targets tracked. But the revelations thus far point to systematic abuse of the technology for the Bolsonaro family's personal interests.

Spying on Bolsonaro’s political opponents

Some of the most alarming suspected uses of FirstMile were to monitor Bolsonaro’s political opponents, particularly those involved in investigating wrongdoing by the Bolsonaro government.

For example, multiple senators on a congressional inquiry into Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic were tracked, including the chairman Senator Omar Aziz. The highly-critical inquiry concluded Bolsonaro committed nine crimes and recommended he be indicted for charges ranging from charlatanism to crimes against humanity.

The secret spy network is also accused of monitoring Kim Kataguiri, a centre-right congressman who became openly critical of Bolsonaro despite previously aligning with him.

These instances indicate Ramagem’s ABIN used FirstMile as a tool for Bolsonaro to keep tabs on lawmakers who were supposed to be investigating him, a major subversion of Brazil’s system of checks and balances.

Spying on Supreme Court justices

In one alarming plot, ABIN operatives tracked Supreme Court justices’ locations and then fabricated evidence trying to link them to organised crime.

Justice Alexandre de Moraes was named on a fraudulent ABIN report as having supposedly met with members of the PCC criminal gang at a shopping mall based on his cellphone being tracked to the location. Another fake report claimed Justice Gilmar Mendes had ties to drug trafficking operations.

The accusations were completely fabricated by the clandestine ABIN duplicate to damage the reputations of the two justices, who had authorised highly-controversial probes into Bolsonaro and his political supporters for spreading disinformation.

The attempt to smear the justices as criminals shows the extreme lengths the Bolsonaro apparatus was willing to go to undermine the Supreme Court and its oversight of Bolsonaro’s abuses of power. As the supreme interpreters of Brazil’s Constitution, the justices were crucial guardians against Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies.

Spying on journalists

In multiple confirmed cases, journalists reporting critically on the Bolsonaro government were tracked by the ABIN doppelgänger.

Reporter Constança Rezende had her location monitored over a span of months after revealing embarrassing details about Bolsonaro’s past in a book. Rezende was also subjected to online abuse and death threats that she attributes to Bolsonaro’s political network. Other journalists targeted cover politics for Estadao and Valor, two of Brazil’s major newspapers.

In 2022, a report to the Supreme Court substantiated the existence of an “office of hate” evidenced as used solely to orchestrate attacks for the purpose of “ideological, party-political and financial gains.”

For the free press, the spying represented an eerie return to Brazil’s dictatorial past when reporters were routinely monitored and intimidated by the state. The targeted journalists said the surveillance made them think twice about pursuing stories critical of Bolsonaro and reminded them their movements were being watched.

Spying on Bolsonaro’s own cabinet members

Not even Bolsonaro’s own cabinet ministers were immune from the illegal spying operations if they voiced dissent or diverged from Bolsonaro politically.

Former Justice Minister Sergio Moro claims he was monitored by ABIN after resigning in 2020 and accusing Bolsonaro of improper interference in the Federal Police. Moro said his and his wife’s cellphones were repeatedly tracked without their consent.

Ex-cabinet members who turned into vocal Bolsonaro critics after leaving government were also allegedly surveilled, including former Education Minister Abraham Weintraub and former Environment Minister Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz.

For Bolsonaro there was no line between party and state; his own ministers were treated as threats if they challenged him or his family in any way. The surveillance of officials within his own government also demonstrate a Trumplike paranoid preoccupation with loyalty by Bolsonaro.

Carlos Bolsonaro’s central role

While Jair Bolsonaro was the head of state, investigators believe it was his son Carlos who played the most hands-on role in deploying the “Parallel ABIN” as an attack dog against opponents.

As a Rio de Janeiro city councilman, Carlos had no formal role in his father’s administration. Yet the 29-year-old was one of Bolsonaro’s most influential confidants due to his social media savvy, serving as the family’s Internet guru. He took charge of Bolsonaro’s online communications during the 2018 campaign in which memes and fake news played a major part.

Once his father became president, Carlos remained a ubiquitous presence in Brasilia and continued managing Bolsonaro’s social media accounts with virtually unlimited access to the presidential palace. He relished his reputation as his father's "pit bull" for his combative style, lashing out at journalists, political rivals, and critics.

According to multiple Brazilian officials, Carlos frequently deployed private information about targets that could only have come from classified government sources.

For example, after a judge ruled against one of Bolsonaro's decrees, Carlos blasted the judge's ruling on Twitter and made reference to his low pass rate on the bar exam, information that is not publicly available.

Carlos called out Randolfe Rodrigues, the deputy chair of the COVID congressional inquiry, for skipping sessions. Carlos somehow knew Rodrigues was abroad despite the travel details never being made public.

In another post, Carlos revealed Governor Joao Doria's arrival time at a private airport before Doria's own press team. These incidents led investigators to believe Carlos was feeding real-time location data from ABIN's systems into his social media attacks.

Carlos was adept at spinning the leaked insights into disinformation campaigns that undermined Bolsonaro's rivals by making them look deceitful. If Lula was traveling in secret to Cuba, it must be for an illicit purpose; if Doria was sneaking into an airport, he must be up to no good.

Investigators suspect a pipeline was established allowing Carlos direct access to ABIN's FirstMile system through Ramagem, his father's loyal intelligence chief. They allege Carlos likely received dossiers of information illegally collected by the secret spy network to utilise in his social media attacks and disinformation campaigns against Bolsonaro critics.

On January 29, 2024, Federal Police raided Carlos' homes in Rio and Brasilia as part of the investigation into the "Parallel ABIN". They seized computers and cellphones containing messages that presumably link him to the ABIN spying scheme.

Analysis is ongoing. But police say evidence indicates Carlos was one of the major end-users of the ABIN’s illegally-obtained surveillance intelligence that was packaged into detailed reports on regime opponents. An arrest or indictment of Carlos appears imminent.

A coordinated disinformation strategy

While Carlos weaponised the classified intelligence online, investigators believe his father’s inner circle developed sophisticated information warfare tactics to capitalize on the spying.

They allege the Bolsonaro campaign perfected a coordinated strategy using illicitly obtained private data to deploy targeted disinformation and smear campaigns against opponents.

The alleged modus operandi was to use ABIN’s FirstMile system to identify a target’s cellphone location and then feed that information to a network of pro-Bolsonaro online influencers and media figures. These coordinators then amplified manipulated narratives aimed at discrediting, intimidating, or threatening the target based on their private movements.

For example, if FirstMile detected a hostile journalist or politician met with a leftist labour union leader, that information would be leaked to far-right social media personalities who would accuse them of being radical communist conspirators. The goal was to rile up Bolsonaro’s base into viewing the target as an “enemy of Brazil” in need of combating.

Pro-Bolsonaro websites like Jornal da Cidade Online played a key role in disseminating the smear campaigns built on data illegally gleaned by ABIN.

According to Federal Police, frequently published stories using private information about Bolsonaro opponents only obtainable through ABIN’s FirstMile system turned illegal surveillance into propaganda.

A climate of intimidation

For Bolsonaro’s foes in politics, the media, and civil society, the uncovering of systematic spying on regime critics harkened back to Brazil’s experience under military dictatorship.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes argued the surveillance created a "climate of intimidation" against opposition voices; the message was that if you challenged Bolsonaro, every aspect of your private life could be weaponised against you.

The alleged monitoring of investigators and judges overseeing probes into Bolsonaro also raised concerns about obstruction of justice. Information illegally obtained by ABIN is alleged to have been deployed to try and stifle inquiries threatening Bolsonaro and his allies.

The climate of paranoia exacerbated Brazil’s already acute political polarisation following the most right-wing presidency since democracy was restored in 1985. Bolsonaro escalated rhetoric casting his own countrymen as enemies whilst embracing authoritarian leaders abroad like Donald Trump and Hungary's Viktor Orban.

For the victims of spying, Bolsonaro perverted the state intelligence apparatus to mirror his own worldview: Opponents were treated as traitors to be crushed rather than fellow citizens with dissenting views.


The allegations of a “Parallel ABIN” apparatus spying on Bolsonaro’s perceived enemies triggered major fallout in Brazil.

In July 2022, all 27 ABIN directors submitted their resignations in protest of the agency’s politicisation under Ramagem. Career ABIN officials were appalled by how Bolsonaro loyalists had wholly coopted the agency for illicit ends.

When allegations first surfaced, Ramagem denied any illegal monitoring by ABIN. But incriminating revelations continued piling up from whistleblowers inside the agency.

Brazil’s Attorney General ordered the Federal Police to open an investigation into Ramagem and his collaborators in late 2022. Over 30 search warrants were carried out targeting Ramagem allies implicated in the ABIN scheme, including raids on Ramagem’s residences.

Investigators continue piecing together communications and reports from seized ABIN databases for evidence of patterns of illegal spying. However, obstacles remain given much of the exceptional ABIN activities relied on oral communication, vanishing chat groups, and undocumented orders to avoid leaving a paper trail.

Ramagem and figures linked to the scandal were summoned to testify before the Brazilian Senate’s ABIN oversight committee in December 2022. However, Ramagem refused to answer senators’ questions citing confidentiality.

His silence prompted the committee to issue a report accusing Ramagem of transforming ABIN into an apparatus devoted to Bolsonaro’s personal interests rather than national security. The report also recommended charges against all ABIN officials involved in illegal spying operations.

Before leaving office, Bolsonaro attempted to shield Ramagem and others from scrutiny by classifying ABIN documents related to the case as state secrets for the next 20 years. But the Supreme Court overturned Bolsonaro’s sealing order, agreeing that it aimed to obstruct investigations of wrongdoing.

With Bolsonaro now out of power, the full picture of the alleged parallel spying abuses continues coming into focus. The latest raids targeting Carlos Bolsonaro and new whistleblower revelations suggest more damning evidence is still emerging.

The scandal shows how Bolsonaro and his inner circle were willing to ruthlessly exploit state

institutions for personal gain. It remains perhaps the most egregious example of the authoritarian tendencies that plagued Bolsonaro's chaotic presidency, which often tested the limits of Brazilian democracy.

Bolsonaro’s legacy of politicising Brazil’s institutions

The alleged weaponisation of ABIN to persecute opponents crystallised fears Bolsonaro steadily eroded institutional barriers restraining the executive branch.

Throughout his presidency, Bolsonaro stocked government bodies like ABIN with unqualified loyalists, attacked oversight mechanisms, and urged his base to defy Supreme Court rulings that constrain his power grabs.

The Bolsonaro family also faced persistent nepotism accusations for placing relatives in high-level roles despite minimal qualifications. Beyond Carlos' unofficial advisory position, his brother Eduardo was made chairman of Brazil's foreign relations committee and their father Jair Renan leveraged presidential access to boost his influencer career.

Critics warned the fusion of family, party, and state under Bolsonaro embodied a slide towards patrimonialism, the classic hallmark of Latin American autocracy.

While Brazil's democracy proved resilient to Bolsonaro's authoritarian manoeuvres, the ABIN case exemplified the need for renewed checks on executive power, say officials.

With Bolsonaro now stripped of office, investigators hope indictments of those responsible for corrupting ABIN will help deter future leaders from pursuing political vendettas through state institutions.

The Bolsonaro era revealed dangerous flaws in oversight and showed how fragile bureaucratic norms are without robust legal safeguards. Broader reforms are now sought to depoliticise agencies like ABIN and ensure they serve the Brazilian people rather than any single ruler or party.

Brazil may have turned the page on Bolsonaro, but the damage from years of state capture and ideological warfare will take time to repair, say officials. The tentacles of nepotism and politicisation penetrated deep into Brazilian institutions before being exposed through scandals.

The Bolsonaro family's reaction

The Bolsonaro family has ferociously denied any wrongdoing since the probes became public in early 2023. Jair and Carlos Bolsonaro claim it is a conspiracy invented by Brazil's "deep state" and left-wing officials.

When Federal Police first requested the IP addresses used to access ABIN's systems in April 2022, the Bolsonaro government refused to provide them, claiming divulging any information about ABIN was illegal. The IP address data could have revealed early on whether Carlos or others in the president's circle accessed the spy systems.

Bolsonaro has accused the Federal Police of being "against Brazil" and threatened to expose supposed dirt on Justice Minister Moro if he testified about ABIN's activities.

For his part, Carlos has remained relatively quiet on social media about the ABIN allegations compared to his normally frequent posts. His lawyer has unsuccessfully tried to annul the Federal Police investigation, claiming procedural irregularities.

Ex-ABIN chief Ramagem denied running a "parallel" intelligence operation, claiming he had no knowledge of FirstMile's use and did not appoint inexperienced loyalists. However, critics argue the pattern of nepotistic, questionable appointments on his watch speaks for itself.

Bolsonaro's disregard for institutions

While the full extent the ABIN scandal remains under investigation, the confirmed misuse of state spy technology against rivals feeds into broader concerns about Bolsonaro's disrespect for independent institutions and law enforcement oversight.

The former military captain has a long history of praising Brazil's former military dictatorship and downplaying human rights abuses committed under military rule.

The alleged infiltration of ABIN with Bolsonaro lackeys represents a troubling manifestation of his autocratic instincts to subordinate government institutions.

In his four years as president, Bolsonaro cycled through four Defence Ministers and three Justice Ministers as he sought loyalists for those key posts overseeing law enforcement. Like Trump in the US, he referred to his supporters as the "my army" and his election win as a "cleansing" of Brazil.

Bolsonaro also stacked the federal police hierarchy with trusted appointees, which led to the high-profile resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro in 2020.

The Bolsonaro family's flagrant disregard for the proper role of intelligence agencies is just one example of their broader disregard for the rule of law and separation of powers.

The raids and probes into the ABIN apparatus provide the first real accountability around these transgressions after years of impunity while Bolsonaro was president.

Brazil at a crossroads

The revelations of spying and politicisation of Brazil's intelligence agencies will have long-term implications far beyond the Bolsonaro family's legal troubles. They underscore the fragility of democratic norms that constrain abuses of power only if politicians respect and enforce them.

After a history of repressive military regimes, Brazil transitioned to democracy in 1985 and enjoyed decades of functional institutional stability. But the Bolsonaro era tested the limits of those democratic checks and balances like never before.

Brazil now stands at a crossroads between condoning Bolsonaro-style impunity or reaffirming rule of law. The probes offer an opportunity to reinforce and protect intelligence agencies from future capture by autocratic leaders.

The Supreme Court sanctioned the Federal Police raids on ABIN and Carlos Bolsonaro's properties as part of its constitutional duty to step in when other branches of government overreach. Such assertive action from the court to check political interference in law enforcement represents a reasertion of constitutional checks on power.

At the same time, the fact that a president could co-opt state surveillance tools on such a massive scale without detection raises red flags about oversight.

The challenges of safeguarding Brazilian democracy in the post-Bolsonaro era go beyond reforming any single institution. The deeper question is whether society has developed sufficient antibodies to resist future power grabs by populists who pay lip service to democracy while trampling on its substance.

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