RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian police are investigating whether former president Jair Bolsonaro tried to deceive American authorities into believing, incorrectly, that he had been vaccinated against the coronavirus so he could enter the United States, authorities said Wednesday.
Federal police conducted a search and seizure operation at Bolsonaro’s Brasília address early Wednesday and arrested several close associates, including a top aide tasked with carrying out Bolsonaro’s administrative demands.
The police action opened a new line of inquiry into the actions of the embattled former president, who lost his reelection bid to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last year and is now the subject of an increasing number of investigations that could end his political career and even put him in prison.
Bolsonaro, a longtime vaccine skeptic, has asserted for years that he never received a coronavirus vaccine. But in December, shortly after he lost the election, Brazilian police say, his vaccine status was falsified to say he had been vaccinated. In late December, he decamped for Florida in the United States, which grants entry to foreigners only if they are vaccinated.
In court records unsealed Wednesday afternoon, police allege that Bolsonaro was aware of the fraud committed on his behalf. They say a change was made to his vaccination status from inside the presidential palace.
The former president denied involvement in any fraud.
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“I didn’t get the vaccine,” he told reporters outside his house Wednesday morning. “I was never asked for a vaccination card [to enter the United States]. There is no fraud on my part. I didn’t take the vaccine, period.”
Police say Bolsonaro’s advisers entered inaccurate information into a Ministry of Health system between November 2021 and December 2022 to obtain falsified vaccine certificates for Bolsonaro, his 12-year-old daughter, Laura, and several aides and their family members.
Police suspect ideology led to the decision to commit fraud rather than get vaccinated.
“The investigation indicates that the objective of the group was to hold together in relation to their ideological agenda,” police said in a statement. “In this case, to sustain the rhetoric regarding their attacks on the coronavirus vaccine.”
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The United States offers exemptions to its vaccine mandate for noncitizens, including “persons on diplomatic or official foreign government travel,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the Brazilian Foreign Ministry told The Washington Post that Bolsonaro, who was still president at the time of his entry into the United States, was not on official state business when he entered the United States. No diplomatic meeting had been scheduled.
The drama is the latest chapter in the years-long saga of Bolsonaro versus the coronavirus vaccine. From the start, he has promoted skepticism around virtually everything about the disease that has killed 700,000 people in Brazil — first its lethality, then measures to curb its spread, and finally the vaccine that health officials said was essential to overcoming it.
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He repeatedly declined to publicize his vaccination status, calling it a private health issue. In late 2021, he said he wouldn’t get vaccinated: “Let me die. The problem is mine.”
The police inquiry is one of a half-dozen criminal investigations into the activities of the former president. He’s also being probed for allegedly inspiring a mob to seize the most important federal buildings in Brasília shortly after Lula’s inauguration in hopes of reversing his election loss and for alleging without evidence that the election would be marred with fraud.
Bolsonaro, who returned to Brazil last month, has quickly reentered political life. He addressed thousands of supporters at an agricultural festival in São Paulo last weekend and is planning a trip to the northeast. He has been reported to be planning to run for the Brazilian Senate in 2026.