RIO DE JANEIRO — The Brazilian police raided the home of former President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday and seized his cellphone as part of a sweeping investigation into forged Covid-19 vaccination records that may have allowed him and his top aides to gain entry into the United States.
The authorities searched more than a dozen homes in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, arresting six people, including one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s closest aides and two of his security guards, who are suspected of tampering with a government vaccination database and issuing falsified records.
The forged vaccine cards may have allowed Mr. Bolsonaro and his aides to sidestep U.S. travel restrictions put in place at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, investigators said.
False vaccine certificates may have been issued for Mr. Bolsonaro, his 12-year-old daughter, Laura, and other top officials in his administration, according to the Brazilian authorities. The police said the vaccination records were forged between November 2021 and December 2022.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bolsonaro denied ever claiming he had been vaccinated and said the U.S. immigration authorities had never asked him to show a vaccination record.
“At no time did I say that I took the vaccine, and I didn’t,” Mr. Bolsonaro told reporters in front of his residence in Brasília after handing over his mobile phone to the police. He said that deciding not to take the vaccine was a “personal decision” and he confirmed that his daughter had not been vaccinated either.
Mr. Bolsonaro was named as a suspect in the investigation, according to documents released by Brazil’s Supreme Court on Wednesday. The Supreme Court said in a decision approving the searches that the investigative connection between the president and a possible crime is “plausible, logical and robust.”
During his time as Brazil’s right-wing president, Mr. Bolsonaro, a staunch critic of Covid shots, consistently dodged questions about whether he was vaccinated against the virus. His vaccination status became such a controversy that, in 2021, Congress placed a century-long seal of secrecy on Mr. Bolsonaro’s vaccination records.
Mr. Bolsonaro traveled to the United States at least four times during the pandemic, including in September 2021, when he took a delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. During the trip, he posted a photo of himself and his entourage eating pizza outdoors, setting off speculation over whether the group had been barred from dining indoors because of Covid restrictions.
Mr. Bolsonaro was heavily criticized for stalling the purchase of Covid vaccines and for frequently spreading misinformation about them. At one point he claimed that the jabs could turn Brazilians into crocodiles.
A Brazilian congressional investigation concluded that Mr. Bolsonaro should be charged with “crimes against humanity” for his handling of the pandemic, which killed 700,000 people in Brazil. Prosecutors have not pursued those charges.
The police were expected to question Mr. Bolsonaro about the falsified vaccination records later on Wednesday.
Following the raid on his home, the normally brash Mr. Bolsonaro appeared solemn as he spoke on a right-wing television program. “During my visits to the U.S., not at any moment was a vaccination card required,” he said. “So there was no fraud on my part. ” At times he appeared to tear up during the interview.
Among those arrested on Wednesday was Mauro Cid Barbosa, a military official who was Mr. Bolsonaro’s secretary and adviser.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva seized on Mr. Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the pandemic during last year’s election, which he narrowly won. Vowing to lift the veil of secrecy, Mr. Lula has began reviewing hundreds of confidentiality seals put in place during Mr. Bolsonaro’s time in office.
“I’m going to let Brazilians know why you hide so much stuff,” Mr. Lula told Mr. Bolsonaro during a debate last year.
Separately, Mr. Bolsonaro faces a series of investigations, including one for spreading election misinformation and for inspiring the Jan. 8 invasion of Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential offices. Brazil’s electoral court is expected to rule this month on one case in which Mr. Bolsonaro is accused of abusing his office when he criticized Brazil’s voting system in a speech to foreign diplomats ahead of last year’s election.
He is also the subject of several Supreme Court inquiries, including into his handling of the pandemic; accusations of spreading misinformation; and a leak of classified information when he discussed a hack of the country’s election agency to support his baseless claims that Brazil’s voting system is unsafe.
If convicted in any of the investigations, Mr. Bolsonaro could be ruled ineligible to run for the presidency in the next election.
Flávia Milhorance reported from Rio de Janeiro and Ana Ionova reported from Toronto.