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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s justice minister, Sergio Moro, a former federal judge who became the face of a powerful anti-corruption crackdown that swept Latin America, resigned in protest on Friday after President Jair Bolsonaro fired the head of the federal police.
The resignation set off a political uproar in Brazil, Latin America’s largest nation, which like others is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, as Mr. Moro accused the president of seeking to erode the autonomy of the federal police and put it at the service of his political ambitions.
“Moro’s resignation is a seismic event in Brazilian politics,” said Ilona Szabó, the executive director of Igarapé Institute, which studies public safety in Brazil. “His departure signals a dangerous new phase for Brazil.”
Ms. Szabó called the president’s move a “coup against democracy because the autonomy of the federal police is an essential foundation for democratic governance.”
In an extraordinary resignation speech, Mr. Moro recounted in great detail what he called his final, tense conversation with the president, which took place on Thursday.
“The president said more than once, expressly, that he wanted a person he could be in touch with personally, whom he could call directly, from whom he could receive information, intelligence reports,” Mr. Moro said, describing the kind of relationship Mr. Bolsonaro wanted with a new police chief.
Mr. Moro said he had urged Mr. Bolsonaro to reconsider the implications of his plan, but said the president was determined to have a federal police chief who would answer his calls and put together intelligence dossiers at his request.
Mr. Moro said the president was “worried about pending cases before the Supreme Court,” and that the change at the federal police “would also be helpful in that sense.”
Brazil’s federal law-enforcement agencies were given a tremendous degree of independence when the country’s 21-year period of military rule ended in the late 1980s.
Mr. Moro called the president’s dismissal of the police chief, Mauricio Valeixo, a clear breach of a condition he had set to accept the ministry. Mr. Moro said the president had promised him “carte blanche” in making critical law enforcement appointments and safeguarding the political independence of institutions under his command.
Yet, the president clearly wants “political interference in the federal police,” Mr. Moro said, which will “hurt its credibility.”
The departure of Mr. Moro, who took a widely criticized gamble when he left a 22-year judgeship to join Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet, deepens Mr. Bolsonaro’s political isolation as Brazil is struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Mr. Bolsonaro last week fired his health minister after the two clashed over the kind of mitigation measures required to avert a public health calamity. The president has been strikingly dismissive of the threat posed by the virus, which he has dismissed as a “measly cold.”
That attitude has sparked daily protests and a movement in Congress to impeach him.
Mr. Moro’s departure comes as federal and state law-enforcement officials are pursuing corruption investigations that stand to hurt allies of Mr. Bolsonaro, including his son Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator.
Mr. Moro, 47, was the most visible leader of a sprawling corruption inquiry that began in Brazil in 2014 and rippled across the region, leading to the imprisonment of presidents and powerful business moguls.
The most high-profile defendant Mr. Moro convicted as part of that investigation was former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was found guilty of money laundering and corruption in July 2017. That outcome thwarted Mr. da Silva’s bid to seek a third presidential term at a time when he was the front-runner.