Brazil court orders arrest of former Americanas executives in fraud probe

By Rodrigo Viga Gaier

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) -A Brazilian court ordered the arrest of two former Americanas executives as part of an investigation into alleged accounting fraud at the retailer, but both of the targets are abroad, according to local police and prosecutors on Thursday.

Americanas, one of Brazil's biggest online and bricks-and-mortar retailers, was thrown into crisis in January 2023 when it revealed billions of dollars in accounting inconsistencies and filed for bankruptcy protection.

"Those being investigated are responsible for the biggest fraud in the history of the Brazilian financial market," the federal police said, adding that the scandal had an estimated impact of 25.3 billion reais ($4.58 billion).

A Rio de Janeiro judge ordered two pretrial arrests and 15 search warrants, Brazil's federal police said on Thursday. But it did not actually make the arrests because the targets are currently abroad, according to local prosecutors.

The court also ordered a freeze on some 500 million reais in assets ($90.7 million) owned by the former executives, the police added.

A source with direct knowledge of the operation told Reuters that one of the targets of the arrest warrants was former Americanas CEO Miguel Gutierrez, who led the firm for more than two decades until December 2022 and now lives in Spain.

Gutierrez's legal defense said in a statement it had no access to the files related to the court decision, adding he has never participated or known about any fraud during his time running the retailer.

The other target of the arrest was former Americanas director Anna Saicali, according to the source.

Representatives of Saicali, who used to lead the retailer's financial arm, did not comment. Saicali told a congressional inquiry in May 2023 that she had never committed or been aware of fraud at Americanas.

The source said Brazilian police intend to include Saicali and Gutierrez in Interpol's wanted list.

Americanas, long controlled by three Brazilian billionaires who founded 3G Capital — Jorge Paulo Lemann, Marcel Telles and Carlos Alberto Sicupira — last year accused Gutierrez and half a dozen other former employees of taking part in a fraud scheme.

"Americanas reiterates its trust in the authorities investigating the case and reinforces that it was the victim of results fraud by its former management, which intentionally manipulated existing internal controls," the company said.

"Americanas believes in justice and awaits the investigations to be concluded to hold everyone involved legally responsible," the firm added in a statement.

Brazil's federal police said their investigations found that former executives "committed accounting fraud related to operations in which the retailer was able to advance payment to suppliers through bank loans."

"The investigation also showed strong evidence of the crime of market manipulation, insider trading, criminal association and money laundering," they added.

Since the scandal was uncovered, Americanas has filed for bankruptcy protection, swapped key executives, revised its 2021 results and agreed to a capital injection of up to 12 billion reais from its controlling investors, aiming for a recovery in 2025.

($1 = 5.52 reais)

(Reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Gabriel Araujo; Editing by Brad Haynes, Christina Fincher, Alexander Smith and Matthew Lewis)