SAO PAULO, Brazil — It was the most cinematic moment in Brazil’s recent political drama. When investigators followed an anonymous tip to an apartment in northern Brazil this week, they stumbled upon a dozen suitcases and boxes stuffed with $16 million in cash — the largest seizure in the history of the country.
“We expected documents, and it was a huge surprise when we found the empty apartment and just the suitcases and boxes covered by a sheet,” Daniel Madruga, who coordinated the operation, told local television station Globo.
Corruption has been an endemic problem in Brazil for centuries, but a massive investigation has unexplained piles of cash popping up around the country like never before. Believed to be the largest corruption case in modern history, the probe uncovered a complex scheme in which top business executives traded bribes for lucrative government contracts. The investigation has snaked its way from a Brasilia Car Wash to the presidential palace, and prosecutors estimate the payoffs reached upwards of $5 billion.
A team of 20 police officers pulled all-nighters on Wednesday to count the stacks of bills, a process captured in a viral video that sparked widespread fury among Brazilians. The money has been returned to public coffers, police said.
While unrivaled in size, the seizure is just one in a series of mysterious discoveries of cash. Since the start of the investigation three years ago, Brazilian politicians have been caught stashing money everywhere from pantyhose worn under their suits to horse stables in exclusive country clubs. Last November, fisherman found hundreds of thousands in cash floating in Rio de Janeiro’s bay, prompting a local treasure hunt and police investigation.
In fact, just hours before they stumbled upon the suitcases full of money on Tuesday, police uncovered $150,000 in cash hidden in the house of the head of Brazil’s Olympic Committee, Carlos Arthur Nuzman. Nuzman is suspected of having negotiated millions in bribes for public works projects ahead of the 2016 games.
On Wednesday, police matched fingerprints found in the boxes and suitcases full of cash in the apartment to Geddel Vieira Lima, who served as Brazilian President Michel Temer’s top congressional liaison until he stepped down amid corruption accusations in July. He’s currently under house arrest on charges of obstruction of justice.
Police believe Vieira Lima used the apartment as a bunker to store bribes he received from companies in exchange for favorable loans and credit lines while he was vice president of Brazil’s National Savings Bank in 2011. Vieira Lima has not commented on the allegations.
The seizure, part of an operation known as “Lost Treasure,” is likely to complicate an already tenuous situation for Temer, who narrowly escaped graft charges last month after another aide was caught delivering a suitcase full of money to a wealthy executive. Temer is expected to face a new round of corruption accusations next week. Whether he can amass enough congressional support to evade a Supreme Court trial remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, as corruption scandals topple the country’s top politicians one by one, outraged Brazilians are struggling to find leaders they can trust ahead of the 2018 elections. Vieira Lima himself publicly rallied against corruption at a protest in 2015.
“I came to say that nobody can take this much robbery,” he said at the time. “This is no longer corruption, it’s just robbery.”