Operation Car Wash: Brazil’s Turning Point or Last Hope?

How do you fix an entire culture built on corruption?

An intricate web of corruption, master planned by former President Lula Inácio da Silva and executed by his party, The Worker’s Party; also involving members of the business elite. Five billion dollars in debt, a reigning culture of impunity and an entire country that continues to lose hope in justice and integrity. It sounds like another day in Brazil but in the midst of endless cases of corruption and dishonesty, Operation Car Wash stands out, both because it’s been one of the most controversial, severe cases of money-laundering in the past decade, but also for its ability to do what seemed impossible until this very moment: awaken Brazilians’ sensibility to the root of the problem and main reason of the country’s underdevelopment — the distorted notion that for many in office; politics simply means privilege, control and personal immunity instead of justice, integrity and commitment to the nation.

Initiated in March of 2014, Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato in Portuguese) is a money-laundering investigation that uncovered an intricate web of corruption between most of the country’s political parties — including current President Michel Temer and former Presidents, Dilma Roussef and Lula da Silva — and the biggest construction cartel in Brazil, Odebrecht. The main objective of the scheme was to fund election campaigns; buying votes to keep the corrupt parties in power, while forming a cartel between firms who decided which national companies would be awarded a Petrobras contract, Brazil’s state-controlled biggest oil producer and a major source of revenue. Maintaining a cycle of bribes inside the company and within local business and political parties, an estimate amount of $30 million in illegal payments were found by the police later that year. Although corruption scandals have been a part of the country’s political history for decades, the real controversy relies not only on the economic and political effect of the scandal, but on the social impact Operation Car Wash caused in Brazilian society. Unapologetically exposing the political crime and all the names involved, Operation Car Wash is a turning point in the history of politics in Brazil, but mostly, it illustrates an attempt from a younger generation to make a change on a life-long corrupt system and culture.

One of the main reason Operation Car Wash differs from the past scandals and investigations, is the outstanding team behind it led by Judge Sergio Moro. Reserved and introverted, the 45-year-old judge from Curitiba has become a national superhero for the past few years. Changing the way corruption cases are tried in Brazil by speeding up the processes, making liberal use of pre trial detentions and keeping defendants in jail instead of out on bail, Moro’s working practices are unusual to Brazil’s judicial system in a lot of ways. Deeply moral, hard working and passionate about the country’s future, Moro is the savior Brazil’s been waiting for years and politician’s biggest fear — someone in court who’s not interested in bribes and will not condone corruption and injustice. Since the beginning of the operation in 2014, Judge Moro and his team have been peeling all layers of corruption publically; exposing all evidence found on the billions that were stolen from the government, as well as sentencing many of the most powerful politicians and businessman to prison with corruption charges, including former President, and mastermind behind the scheme, Lula da Silva. Starting an era where politicians finally fear the law again, Judge Moro gave a voice to the millions of people that have been watching their country collapse in silence for decades and sparked a desire for truth and equity within the younger generations. For him, “regardless of power and influence, no one is above the law.”With the political scandal making headlines and Operation Car Wash’s procedures receiving international recognition, Judge Moro was awarded the Notre Dame Award by the University of Notre Dame on October 2nd of 2017, for his courageous effort to preserve his nation’s integrity through his unbiased application of the law. The New York Times has also labeled him “the face of the national reckoning for Brazil’s ruling class” while Time Magazine included him on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Another reason behind the significant impact caused by Operation Car Wash, is the shocking amount of evidence that was discovered and exposed by Judge Moro and his team since 2014. Initially, Judge Moro and his prosecutors found that contractors at Odebretch paid kickbacks to middleman and politicians in exchange of favors and contacts at Petrobas, estimating an amount of $5 million in bribes. Additionally to all the cash, deals were made in the form of luxury cars, expensive art works, beach houses and helicopters between the members of the scheme — which were all found during investigations. In March of 2016, Moro released the transcript of an intercepted conversation between former president Lula Inácio da Silva and the president at the time, Dilma Roussef, where she offers a cabinet position to Lula — attempting to shield him from prosecution and trial in conventional courts. The transcript fueled public outrage and indignation, initiating a series of protests and riots that finally led to Roussef’s impeachment later in 2016. Although many criticized Judge Moro for releasing the official transcript, the judge made it very clear that he had no regrets and that “democracy always wins, and people need to learn what their leaders do in the shadows.” In May of 2017, audiotapes of a conversation between current President Michel Temer and Joesley Batista — CEO of meatpacking giant JBS, another of the many firms involved in the scandals — were released shocking the country once again. The tapes recorded the President approving payments that were allegedly planned to silence witnesses as well as stating to keep all bribes as low key as possible.

Right after the release of the audiotapes, Joesley Batista surrendered to the police, exposing more information about the scheme in exchange of immunity for his crimes. Standing on the other end of the case, Batista and his brother Wesley Batista were charged of insider trading, and admitted paying bribes to over 1,800 politicians in recent years. Although the downfall of the meat processing firm JBS deeply affected the country’s economy, Batista claimed they only entered the scheme to create more revenue and accelerate the process of creating more jobs in Brazil. With his company’s business interests in mind, Batista’s idea was that the scheme would favor JBS’ investments nationally and abroad — allowing more job opportunities and boosting Brazil’s economy. In an interview to Brazilian magazine Veja, Batista admitted he didn’t realize the depth of the scheme when he first got involved, and it became entirely too dangerous to leave — describing a very unsafe and paranoid environment, with threats, ambiguous deals and intimidation from all parts involved.

While Joesley Batista and other members of the business elite admitted their involvement with the corruption web, the three Presidents still deny all charges. Current President Michel Temer was charged with receiving money from JBS after Batista’s allegations, and although the charges have been delivered to the Supreme Court, he is still in office, and denies any linkage with the scandal. Former President Dilma Roussef fought all accusations, denying all charges arguing that her political rivals had been trying to remove her from office ever since she was re-elected, falsely accusing her of being involved in a scandal she knows nothing about. Former President Lula da Silva, considered the master mind behind the scheme, has been sentenced to nine and a half years in prison, but won’t go to jail until the outcome of the appeal, which is currently under judgement. Also denying all charges, Lula states that accusations were politically motivated and made up to influence his supporters and prevent him from running as a candidate in the next presidential election.

Judge Moro believes that a political transformation can only be achieved through intense periods of changes, and in Brazil’s case; a change in the mentality of not only the ones in power, but the ones who suffer all the consequences of a corrupt country. Operation Car Wash symbolizes the end of an era of impunity in Brazil, but does it also represent the end of political crime? With the country still in recession, a shattered economy and all three Presidents involved still running free, it’s hard not to wonder: is this incident strong enough to make a permanent change or is it just another episode of politicians maneuvering the law? Operation Car Wash is a turning point in the history of politics in Brazil, but is it sufficient to shift a culture and a system built on dishonesty? An attempt to make justice to decades of corruption and to bring order to a structure ruled by inside schemes, there’s only one question to ask: is Operation Car Wash pertinent enough to change the ceaseless Brazilian delusion that politics and privilege have the same meaning?