Brazil police investigate top Environment Ministry officials

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s Federal Police on Wednesday carried out searches to investigate whether key figures within the Environment Ministry, including Minister Ricardo Salles, facilitated illegal timber exports to the U.S. and Europe.

The Supreme Court authorized the search of nearly three dozen locations in Sao Paulo state, the Amazonian state of Para and Brazil’s federal district, according to a police statement.

The operation stems from a decision of the court’s Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who ordered the investigation of 10 officials at the ministry and the regulatory agency.

Nine of them were preventatively suspended from working, including agency President Eduardo Bim — but not Salles — according to a copy of de Moraes’ May 13 decision made public on Wednesday. He wrote that there appeared to be a contraband scheme with Salles’ involvement.

The ministry and regulator didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Salles this year began talks with officials from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has directly called on Brazil to curb rising Amazon deforestation. Foreign investors, particularly based in Europe, had already begun expressing greater concern. Officials and activists are watching closely for signs of whether recent signals from Bolsonaro’s administration that it wants to take stronger action amounts to more than lip service.

The justice’s decision also granted police access to the confidential banking records of Salles and others under investigation, from January of 2018 until May 12.

Salles’ private residence in Sao Paulo and the Environment Ministry offices were among the locations police searched, local media reported. Newspaper O Globo reported Salles was seen entering the federal police headquarters in capital Brasilia on Wednesday accompanied by his lawyer.

Police said in their statement that investigations began in January, and potential crimes include corruption, facilitation of contraband and sponsoring private interests while working as a public servant.

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