Brazil’s former intelligence chief under investigation for alleged spying on opposition, judges, journalists

By January 25, 2024

São Paulo, Brazil — Brazil’s Federal Police on Thursday searched residences linked to Congressman Alexandre Ramagem, who served as intelligence chief under former President Jair Bolsonaro. 

The search was part of an investigation into alleged illegal spying on judges, political opponents, journalists, lawyers and activists during Ramagem’s time heading Brazil’s intelligence agency, Abin, from July 2019 and March 2022.

Under Brazilian law, no one can be monitored without court authorization, as privacy is a fundamental right provided for in the Constitution, and this includes any actions of the police or government intelligence agency.

According to Supreme Court documents that were released on Thursday and reported by local media, the intelligence agency used First Mile, an Israeli spyware reportedly acquired in 2018 by the Brazilian government, to spy on judges, opposition members, activists, and members of the media.

Suspected victims of spying include two Supreme Court judges, the former speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, a governor and a prosecutor responsible for investigating the 2018 murder of Rio de Janeiro Councilor Marielle Franco.

Authorities are also investigating whether Abin was used to interfere in police investigations and prepare reports favorable to two of Bolsonaro’s sons: Senator Flávio Bolsonaro and Renan Bolsonaro, who are targets of different investigations by the Federal Police. Flávio Bolsonaro denied having received privileged information from Abin that could help in his defense and classified the accusation as “complete nonsense.”

On Thursday, the Federal Police carried out 21 search orders, authorized by the Supreme Court, against Ramagem and 11 federal police officers, who worked at Abin and are suspected to be involved in the spying. The police also searched Ramagem’s office in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower house of Congress. He was called to testify, but a date has not been set. 

Supreme Court Justice Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who is included on a list of potential spying victims, said upon authorizing the investigation, “Federal police officers, under the direction of Ramagem, used Abin’s tools for illicit services and to interfere in many police investigations. For example, to try to work in favor of Renan Bolsonaro, son of then-president Jair Bolsonaro.”

Moraes also mentioned an alleged attempt by Abin agents to associate him, along with fellow Supreme Court Judge Gilmar Mendes, with the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Brazil’s largest organized crime group. The goal, according to police, was to push false information to defame the two justices. 

Judge Moraes concluded that there existed a criminal organization inside Abin, created with the aim of “illegally monitoring people and public authorities, invading devices and computers, in addition to the telephone infrastructure.”

Supreme Court judges Gilmar Mendes and Alexandre de Moraes are on a list of potential victims of espionage. Image courtesy of Roberto Jayme/TSE

About First Miles

According to investigators, the alleged illegal spying was facilitated by First Mile spyware. Produced by an Israeli cyber defense company, the equipment allows users to monitor the steps of chosen targets using cell phone location data. The program was acquired in December 2018, and was reportedly only used until May 2021.

Police said that First Mile facilitated monitoring of up to 10,000 cell phone owners every 12 months by simply entering the desired phone number into the program, which was capable of locating any device that used 2G, 3G and 4G networks. In addition to identifying the approximate location of cell phones, the system was capable of generating alerts about the routine movement of targets of interest.

When the first allegations of illegal spying first surfaced in October 2023, the director of the Federal Police, Andrei Passos, estimated that around 30,000 Brazilians had been illegally monitored by the program during part of Bolsonaro’s administration.

“This monitoring data on Brazilian citizens was stored in clouds in Israel, because the company responsible for this tool is Israeli,” said Passos.

Abin is the Brazilian intelligence agency, linked to the federal government. Image courtesy of Antônio Cruz/Agência Brasil

More problems at Abin

When requesting search orders from the Supreme Court, the Federal Police reported that the spy agency’s current management, appointed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also tried to interfere, and even harm, the investigation into the illegal use of First Mile.

Using the argument of “protecting sensitive information,” Abin allegedly made access to relevant data difficult, hindering the investigation into its leadership.

“The unique gravity of the facts is increased by the possible collusion on the part of those investigated [from the previous management] with the current management of Abin, the result of which caused damage to the present investigation, to those investigated and to the institution itself,” said the police. 

Abin has not yet commented on the allegations, nor on Thursday’s operation.

Alexandre Ramagem is a close friend of former president Jair Bolsonaro. Image courtesy of Agência Brasil

Who is Alexandre Ramagem?

A lawman, Alexandre Ramagem was appointed chief of Federal Police in 2005. 

In 2018, appointed to coordinate the security of the then presidential candidate Bolsonaro. The two grew close and once Bolsonaro was elected, Ramagem was appointed to head Abin, spending almost three years at the helm. 

After leaving the agency, Bolsonaro chose Ramagem to command the Federal Police in April 2022, but the Supreme Court suspended his nomination. The Court highlighted a “deviation of purpose” in Ramagem’s nomination due to his close ties to the president, which could, according to the Court, harm his work with the Federal Police.

In October 2022, Ramagem was elected to the Chamber of Deputies with 59,000 votes, running on Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) ticket. 

Ramagem is also a pre-candidate for mayor of Rio de Janeiro in the October 2024 municipal elections.