The dirt is piling up around Brazil's macho Mr Clean: President Collor is young, dashing and in deep trouble. Phil Davison reports

He has been dubbed Captain Marvel, South America's Indiana Jones and 'one of the world's most sexy men'. With Latin looks, athletic skills and a macho, Top Gun image as fighter pilot-for-pleasure, Fernando Collor de Mello took Brazil by storm in its 1990 presidential election.

Three years ago this son of wealthy landowners pledged to fight corruption among the 'maharajas' of the nation's overweight bureaucracy, and to clothe the millions of 'shirtless and shoeless'. He swept to power as Brazil's long-awaited 'Mr Clean'. He was the youngest president in the South American nation's history. Now, halfway through his five-year term, he is starring in a real-life soap opera that has the nation enthralled, and appears likely to culminate in his early demise.

Accused of pocketing millions of dollars in kickbacks since taking office, Mr Collor, 43, faces impeachment and criminal charges that could, if he continues to refuse to step down, see him led from the Presidential Palace in handcuffs. A poll last week showed 75 per cent of Brazilians in favour of impeachment, a concept so alien in Brazil that street protest placards use the English word: 'Impeachment ja]' (Impeachment now]). Congress is expected to vote by the end of this month on whether to begin the impeachment process.

Whether it rubbed off on him, Mr Collor could hardly have been a stranger to corruption during his formative years. He was 14 when his father, Senator Arnon de Mello, took exception to remarks by a colleague on the Senate floor. He pulled his pistol and a colleague fell dead. Next, he pulled his weight and the killing was ruled to have been accidental. He had, he pointed out, been aiming at a different senator.

Part of a well-off provincial clan from the north-eastern sugar-belt state of Alagoas, the family's close ties with military leaders allowed Mr Collor to clamber quickly up the political ladder. He became mayor of Maceio, the provincial capital, in 1979, was elected to Congress and, in 1986, became state governor. Although a dark horse, those closest to him were not surprised when he won the presidency. Support from the influential O Globo media network, with which his family had ties, helped to tip the scales.

His Mr Clean image took its first dent a year ago when his wife Rosane was forced to step down as head of the Brazilian Assistance Legion, a big state charity. She had, it was alleged, been siphoning off charity funds to lavish expensive gifts and parties on friends and relatives. The real-life soap opera had by then already begun when, in August, the presidential couple had a public falling out and Mr Collor stopped wearing his wedding ring. An equally public reconciliation followed after Rosane burst into tears during a mass.

And last September, Mr Collor's brother-in-law, Joao Malta Brandao, was said to have shot at a local mayor during a bar-room brawl. He turned himself in, but all charges were mysteriously dropped. Three months ago, however, the 'soap' surpassed fiction with a twist that could lead to the president's downfall. His brother, Pedro, accused the president of being a heavy user of marijuana and cocaine and of attempting to get his wife into bed when their marriage was having hiccups.

The allegations made the headlines, but it was Pedro's less-publicised claims - that his brother had his hand in the nation's till - that eventually led to the impeachment crisis.

In fact, 38-year-old Pedro later retracted, saying he had no proof of any direct corruption by his brother. But the die was cast. A congressional panel investigated the allegations announced its findings last month: the president, it said, 'on a permanent basis and during more than two years in office, received improper financial benefit'.

To wit, the panel charged, Mr Collor and his family had received millions of dollars from a slush fund, by using contracts and payments to non-existent companies, run by his close friend and former campaign treasurer Paulo Cesar Farias.

Mr Collor denies any wrongdoing. But if he does not yet stand naked, his support is little wider than the 'dental floss' bikinis favoured on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada