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Brazil's judiciary hunts corrupt politicians

February 19, 2017

Managers and politicians behind bars, and record fines: Brazil's judiciary is cleaning house in the Odebrecht scandal. Attorneys general from 15 countries have met for an international anti-corruption summit.

Brasilien Proteste gegen die Korruption
Image: Getty Images/AFP/E. Sa

Was Brazil's judiciary inspired by Marx's "Communist Manifesto"? "Prosecutors of the world, unite!" – this could well have been prosecutors' motto when they invited counterparts from 15 countries to meet in Brasilia. The result of their two-day summit, which ended last Friday, was that state prosecutors from Latin America, Africa and Europe will now be working in unison to delve deeper into "Lava Jato" (Operation Car Wash), the largest corruption scandal in Brazilian history.

Praise from Transparency International

Not only the summit, but also the successful year-long fight that Brazil's judiciary has been waging against corruption, is garnering worldwide attention. "The country that exported corruption is now exporting the fight against corruption," lauded José Carlos Ugaz, chairman of the NGO Transparency International.

In a recent article in the Brazilian newspaper "O Globo," the former public prosecutor from Peru wrote: "Had it not been for the investigative work of Brazilian public prosecutors and the publishing of their findings by the US Department of Justice, investigations in other countries would not have been able to get underway."

According to media reports, some of the other countries whose governments were involved in the scandal surrounding the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht are Angola, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Mozambique, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Antigua and Barbuda, Chile, El Salvador and Portugal are also under suspicion.

Brasilien Odebrecht-Skandal - Treffen der Ankläger in Brasilia
The prosecutors from Brazil, America, Africa and Europe met in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Peres

'Premiums' for middlemen      

The focus of the investigation, which began three years ago, centers on bribe payments made by Odebrecht. The bribes to secure government contracts were made under the motto "first collect, then distribute." The model allowed Odebrecht to grossly overcharge for the building of streets, power plants and soccer stadiums, and then use a portion of the extra profits to give kickbacks to those who facilitated the contracts.

Brazil's judiciary has made 138 requests for administrative assistance to 33 countries since their investigation into Operation Car Wash began. It has also completed 28 treaties on the forwarding of investigative findings with 18 countries. The result is that some 1.8 billion euros (US$1.9 billion) have poured back into public coffers, and 25 billion euros (US$26.5 billion) in fines have been imposed.

Brasilien Marcelo Odebrecht Bauunternehmer Anhörung Parlament
Marcelo Odebrecht in Curitiba on September 1st, 2015.Image: Getty Images/AFP/H. Andrey

Beware Car Wash!  

Although it may seem odd in light of all the corruption scandals enveloping Brazil and the rest of Latin America, the public prosecutors who met in Brasilia on Thursday and Friday see themselves as the vanguard in the fight against international money laundering and corruption.

A joint statement released by attorneys general from 11 countries read: "In accordance with the United Nations Convention against Corruption, we call for the establishment of joint investigative teams to combat corruption in the case of Lava Jato and Odebrecht. We exhort citizens to support prosecution authorities in their fight against corruption."

Heads of state running out of explanations

According to media reports, some 188 people have been arrested and 120 of the accused have been jailed in the course of the judicial operation. The most prominent offender so far has been Odebrecht President Marcelo Odebrecht. He was arrested in June 2015 and subsequently sentenced to 19 years and four months in jail. His sentence was cut to ten years after he and other company directors agreed to cooperate with investigators.

More than 200 politicians across Latin America are belived to have been involved in the Odebrecht scandal.  Among them is former Brazilian President Luiz Ignácio Lula, as well as his current successor, Michel Temer. According to the US Department of Justice, Odebrecht middlemen also paid the government of former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner more than $35 million.

Infografik Karte Odebrecht Lateinamerika englisch

In Peru, the former governments of Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), Alan García (2006-2011) and Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) are all under suspicion of having taken bribes. In Venezuela, Odebrecht is accused of having given more than $3 million to the election campaigns of former President Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro. Most recently, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has come under suspicion.  

Improved communication

Can it really be that Brazil's judiciary, long thought to be slow and inefficient, is now putting the fear of God into corrupt politicians and managers? Transparency International boss José Ugaz, is convinced that Brazil's prosecutors have opened up a new chapter in the fight against corruption at their two-day investigators' summit in Brasilia.

"Until now, joint investigative teams were virtually nonexistent in Latin America. Not only will they help in the case of 'Lava Jato,' they will also help other investigations and generally improve overall communication between prosecutors," he says. "They are a model for future investigations into organized crime."

The bribing Brazilians