Brazil’s former highway police chief arrested, accused of interfering in 2022 presidential elections

By August 11, 2023

São Paulo, Brazil – Brazil’s former director of the Federal Highway Police (PRF), Silvinei Vasques, was arrested on Wednesday, accused of attempting to interfere in the October 2022 presidential elections. Federal Police say that on election day October 30, the PRF arbitrarily stopped buses of voters on their way to the polls in regions that heavily swung in favor of then-presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. 

Investigators say that the PRF, the police force responsible for maintaining the safety of federal roads and that is part of the Ministry of Justice, inspected about 4,500 buses that day. The PRF claimed they were searching for irregularities, such as damaged tail lights or worn tires. But what drew the attention of investigators was that 48% of the inspections were reportedly carried out in Brazil’s northeast, a region which overwhelmingly voted for Lula. 

The inspections caused hours of delays and even prompted Lula’s campaign to petition the Electoral Court to extend poll closing times in areas that had been affected. The Electoral Court denied the request. 

According to authorities, 2,185 buses were inspected in Brazil’s northeastern states, compared to 893 in the country’s midwest, 632 in the south, 571 in the southeast and 310 in the north. By that count, the number of buses inspected in the northeast was just 221 shy of the sum of all the other regions.

Despite the delays, there were no reports from the region of voters who were unable to vote because of the highway patrol operation. 

Possible links to Bolsonaro’s disgraced justice minister 

Federal investigators opened an investigation into the allegations of irregularities committed on election day by the PRF. 

Over the course of the investigation, authorities say they’ve gathered evidence which suggests that Vasques was instructed to interfere with the elections at the behest of Anderson Torres, the disgraced former Justice Minister in the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro. Torres is currently being investigated for his alleged involvement in the January 8, 2023 attacks on Brazil’s government headquarters after Bolsonaro lost the election to Lula. 

Read more: Brazil’s former Justice Minister, investigated for January 8 attacks on govt headquarters, released from jail

According to investigators, the PRF planned operations to inspect buses near cities where Lula won more than 75% of votes in the first round of general elections held on October 2, 2022. The Federal Police allegedly found a map with cities where Lula had won, and regions where Bolsonaro had large support were not included in the bus inspection operation. 

Silvinei Vasques and Anderson Torres are accused of acting to harm Lula’s voters. Image courtesy of MJSP

Police believe that the map was drawn up at the direction of former Minister Torres and passed on to PRF agents by Vasques at a meeting on October 19. 

Federal Police also found messages from people who attended the meeting and reported that Vasques said that it was time for the PRF to “take a side in the dispute” (between Lula and Bolsonaro). He would have recognized that the operation was “targeted policing” in the Northeast.

Investigators uncovered that, ahead of the run-off elections, highway police officers were disproportionately assigned to Brazil’s northeast. The PRF reportedly had 795 highway police in the northeast region, 528 in the southeast, 418 in the south, 381 in the midwest and 230 in the north, despite the northeast not being Brazil’s most populous region. 

Supreme Court authorized the arrest 

Based on material collected from PRF employees’ emails and cell phones, Brazil’s Federal Police requested a warrant for Vasques’ arrest, which was authorized by the Supreme Court. 

“A general director of a State police institution acting in a way to determine a targeted policing and mentioning that the institution should choose a side, indicates an action as a government police, placing social and political interests above the interests of society, which is inadmissible,” said the Federal Police.

According to investigators, the police operation was not isolated, rather part of a larger scheme which began in 2019 to interfere with the 2022 elections, including the dissemination of false information by Bolsonaro and his government aimed at discrediting Brazil’s electoral process, and culminating in the January 8 attacks on the country’s government headquarters in Brasília. 

Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who authorized Vasques’ arrest, called his actions “illicit and very serious.”

“Keeping the investigated person free may compromise the effectiveness of the investigations, since, even though retired, it is very likely that there will be a reverence from other police officers to the former director who nominated them for their respective roles,” said Moraes. (Vasques retired from the PRF in December 2022 at the age of 47).

Federal Highway Police is responsible for safety on federal roads. Image courtesy of Brazilian Government

According to Judge Moraes, the case shows potential signs of crimes including prevarication, when a public agent acts or fails to act for his/her own benefit; obstruction of voting rights; and abusing authority. 

Vasques remains in custody in Brasília and has denied that he acted against Lula supporters. According to Vasques, “the operation was not decided by the PRF,” potentially hinting that the order came from former Justice Minister Torres. 

Torres refuted Vasques’s claim, saying the PRF had the autonomy to define its own operations and that he did not have “attribution to veto the action plans.”

Thus far, investigators have not implicated any other high-level officials outside of Justice Minister Torres, including former President Bolsonaro.