Photo: Lula Marques
Since 2014, Lava Jato (the Car Wash investigation) has been celebrated as a victory in Brazil’s “war against corruption”. The narrative surrounding the investigation celebrated a plucky young team of heroes stumbling upon a giant corruption scandal involving illegal dealings between political parties, construction companies and the state oil company Petrobras. For many Brazilians, it marked the end of elite impunity.
Led by a team of young prosecutors, the judge Sergio Moro – now minister of justice – presided over its most notable prosecutions. The investigation prosecuted 159 people including leading politicians, billionaires and former president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva.
Lava Jato was celebrated internationally, and Moro – the man who sent Lula to prison – heralded as an incorruptible anti-corruption crusader. However, recent revelations spearheaded by The Intercept and journalist Glenn Greenwald have shaken the foundations of Brazilian politics, revealing an investigation and a judge who regularly engaged in illegal and unethical practices in order to get results – often for partisan political reasons. The destabilising and radicalising effects of Lava Jato on Brazilian politics begs the question: was the cure worse than the disease?
In order to understand the importance of these revelations it is necessary to briefly sketch the current Brazilian political landscape. Last year the extreme-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected in Brazil; Bolsonaro, who openly celebrates Brazil’s military dictatorship, and who is notorious for his homophobia, misogyny, hatred of the left and advocacy of extrajudicial killing. The path to the presidency was cleared when Lula – who presided over a time of rapid economic growth and lifted millions out of poverty – was imprisoned by Moro and blocked from running for president by Brazil’s electoral court.
Lula was convicted by Moro for receiving improvements to a beachfront apartment from a construction company as a bribe and sentenced to 12 years in jail, despite the fact he never lived in the aforementioned apartment. Lula had led all the polls by a considerable margin until his candidacy was blocked. This ruling has been questioned by Brazilian and international legal figures across the political spectrum and is based on suspect evidence and the shaky testimony of a single businessman.
For years, myself and many others have criticised Lava Jato for covert coordination between judges and prosecutors (this type of communication is illegal in Brazil as it is in the UK), political partisanship, relying on suspect leaks to the media and other morally and legally questionable practices. Moro, whose actions more-or-less guaranteed Bolsonaro’s victory, was subsequently appointed as Bolsonaro’s “superminister of justice” and given an unprecedented amount of power. In most countries this would be seen as a form of corruption or unethical behaviour at the very least. However, Lava Jato’s defenders argued that Moro – mistakenly depicted as a modernising liberal – would mitigate Bolsonaro’s worst instincts.
The Intercept’s bombshell revelations came from a massive leak of private chats, group messages and voice notes between Lava Jato investigators, prosecutors, and Judge Moro through the messaging app Telegram. Not only do they add firm evidence to the criticisms of Lava Jato, but they reveal that the investigation was seemingly led by the judge presiding over the cases, with evidence to show he coordinated its media strategy, prosecution strategy and goals over Telegram with the lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol.
The Intercept and its media partners in Brazil, the Folha de São Paulonewspaper and journalist Reinaldo Azevedo have shown numerous examples of Moro suggesting lines of argument and investigation to prosecutors; evidence that the judge directed Dallagnol to remove a prosecutor from the Lula case he thought was weak; and attempts to block Lula from giving an interview before the election because it might help his replacement as the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad.
Further revelations include the facts that prosecutors criticised Moro for his willingness to rely on dubious methods in pursuit of his goals and for agreeing to be Bolsonaro’s justice minister months before the election. Lava Jato prosecutors also pressurised the key witness against Lula to change his story in order to implicate Lula, in a case they acknowledged to be weak. Moro also dissuaded Dallagnol from prosecuting former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso as he was seen as an important political ally of the investigation.
The implications of these findings are explosive. They threaten all of Lava Jato’s prosecutions, the reputation of the investigation, Moro’s political career, and even the future of the Bolsonaro government. Moro, who has long denied any coordination with prosecutors, has claimed, mostly through a series of posts on the highly dubious far-right website The Antagonist, that the messages were illegally obtained by “hackers” and taken out of context. Once Brazil’s most popular public figure, he could now be forced to resign.
The scandal will likely prevent Moro’s widely criticised “anti-crime and corruption” bill from passing in congress. It could also could obstruct the government’s plans for pension reform, damaging Bolsonaro’s scandal-prone government, which is already stumbling after allegations about connections between paramilitary mafias and the president’s family, as well as a recent incident in which a pilot travelling in the president’s entourage to the G20 conference was caught with 39kgs of cocaine.
Lava Jato’s most enduring legacy may end up being the ascension of Bolsonaro, a dangerous bigot who has benefited from an establishment-consuming, anti-corruption drive that turned out to be far less pure than originally thought. And it was Moro – a partisan right-wing figure with messianic delusions, willing to do away with the rule of law in pursuit of his goals – who played the key role in putting him there.