This article first appeared in EL PAÍS on February 4, 2021.
“Who steals little is a thief, he who steals much is a baron“, said some verses that triumphed in Brazil during the empire. The protagonist, one of the most corrupt of the court, was a baron and then a viscount. Two centuries later, Operation Lava Jato put a stop to the traditional impunity of the powerful thanks to an ambitious judge and prosecutors once compared to the untouchables of Elliot Ness, those who caught Al Capone. They operated from Curitiba, a capital of the interior, far from the centers of power.
On Monday, the Attorney General’s Office dissolved the unit, made up of nine prosecutors, dedicated exclusively to investigating the case from Curitiba. The decision, bureaucratic in appearance and known this Wednesday, closes an era of Lava Jato. The investigations were born seven years ago in an anodyne way in a car wash where money was laundered, from there, to the bribes Petrobras paid to politicians, but acquired an astonishing development with international ramifications. Its tentacles in the Mexican oil company Pemex are now the hottest news, but before that it led Lula da Silva and the presidents of Peru, Panama and El Salvador to jail, motivated the suicide of a fifth president, altered the political map of the region and gave birth to the largest fine in history to a company for paying bribes.
The brand that galvanized people fed up with corruption, filled the streets with indignant people and boosted Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral victory after Lula was disqualified after being convicted of corruption, dies in Brazil. The impact of the revelations in the rest of the continent was and is also enormous, in Peru, Mexico, Colombia… Powerful politicians and businessmen went to jail as investigators pulled the threads of the skein. Criticisms of excesses on the part of the investigators and, in the case of Brazil, major suspicions of political bias arose.
The latest Lava Jato investigation points to former Pemex director Emilio Lozoya receiving bribes from Spanish construction company OHL in exchange for public contracts during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto. They are the most recent members of a large club of powerful people – some suspected, others convicted – who thought they were untouchable for decades.
In addition to Lula, presidents Alejandro Toledo (Peru), Ricardo Martinelli (Panama) and Mauricio Funes (El Salvador) spent time behind bars. Peru’s Alan Garcia shot himself as he was about to be arrested. Prosecutors in Curitiba achieved almost 300 arrests, 278 convictions and recovered 4.3 billion reais (660 million euros) for the Brazilian treasury. The Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which had a kickback scheme, paid a fine of 3.5 billion dollars in the United States.
Curitiba is also the city where Lula was imprisoned for 19 months after being convicted by Judge Sergio Moro, whose name became associated with Lava Jato. Turned into a national hero, he was Bolsonaro’s minister. Four of the nine prosecutors will continue with the case for now, diluted in a team against organized crime.
The decision was a foregone conclusion. The president announced it in plain language four months ago: “I don’t want to put an end to Lava Jato. I have already put an end to Lava Jato because there is no corruption in my government”, he proclaimed in a speech applauded by those present. By then, Moro had left the government and investigators were tightening the siege around members of the Bolsonaro clan suspected of corruption. The populist president prepared the ground with the appointment of a related attorney general who has now given the case the lunge.
“There is a political interest in weakening Lava Jato. The weaker the oversight bodies are the more the suspects celebrate it,” says prosecutor Roberto Livianu, president of the Instituto Não Aceito Corrupção, an association, by telephone. “The prosecutors who have been relocated have verve and ethical principles, but they have no supernatural powers when their workload is inhuman,” he adds.
The final blow comes at a key moment. Bolsonaro has forgotten his fiery discourse against old politics and corruption to dole out millions from the public coffers to a handful of parties without ideology known for selling their parliamentary support in exchange for positions with budgets. With these allies at the helm of Congress, he hopes to bury the specter of impeachment.
Discontent over alleged abuses by united investigators has added up to a kind of sudden amnesia. For this blow to Lava Jato was received with remarkable indifference in Brazil even though its revelations were central to Bolsonaro’s campaign and earlier, to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party. As one journalist tweeted, “there is no one on the street, nor is he among the TT (trending topics). What a thing. However, despite the obvious political effects of the mega-scandal, Brazilians’ perception of corruption has changed very little. In these seven years it has fallen five points in the Transparency International ranking to 94th place out of 180 countries, tied with Peru and well ahead of Mexico, in 124th place.
As Livianu, from Não Aceito Corrupcão, emphasizes, the scourge affects every citizen because these funds stop financing health, education, coronavirus vaccines, sanitation or security. A direct attack on public policies.
Meanwhile, Moro has his own problems. He has had to reinvent himself because he cannot return to the judiciary since he passed through the government. And there is the suspicion of lack of impartiality, due to the content of the messages he exchanged with prosecutors during the Lula investigation, as revealed by The Intercept, EL PAÍS Brasil and other media. The Supreme Court, which this Monday lifted the secrecy of a new batch of messages, must decide on Lula’s lawsuit against Moro; he is asking for his expulsion from the race and the annulment of the conviction. A delicate judicial decision. It will affect the political future of the hero and villain of Lava Jato.