Operation Car Wash: the end (seems) near

. Jul 02, 2020
Operation Car Wash: the end (seems) near Super Sergio Moro inflatable dolls for sale at demonstration. Photo: Nancy Ayumi Kunihiro/Shutterstock

In the morning of June 18, federal marshals in three municipalities in Rio de Janeiro state carried out search and seizure warrants at the homes of suspects of taking part in a corruption ring within Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil and gas giant. This was the 71st phase of the country’s sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation, but it was the first operation in 2020, which is looking to be by far the least productive year of the task force since its launch in 2014.

Once considered an unstoppable anti-corruption force, Operation Car Wash is seeing its wings clipped on a constant basis. Recent developments suggest it is on its way to being completely neutered.

</p> <p>Last week, a group of federal prosecutors resigned from the Car Wash task force, claiming that Augusto Aras — the Prosecutor General <a href="">handpicked by President Jair Bolsonaro</a> last year — is trying to tamper with the investigations. By way of his deputy, Lindora de Araújo, Brazil&#8217;s top prosecutor requested access to confidential audio recordings and documents — a highly unusual move, according to the rebelling prosecutors. But Mr. Aras claims that Operation Car Wash — which has arrested almost 300 people and recovered over BRL 18 billion in funds lost to corruption — is not an independent branch of government and must respond to hierarchy.</p> <p>This is just the latest move by the Jair Bolsonaro administration against Operation Car Wash. Despite being <a href="">elected under an anti-corruption banner</a>, the president has allowed the slow bleeding of Brazil&#8217;s flagship bribery probe.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the wake of Operation Car Wash, anti-corruption politics were decisive in the elections of 2016 and 2018. Many, however, have pointed out that its biggest champions, such as now-President Jair Bolsonaro, had a glass ceiling on the matter. And that their rise to power is what is now dehydrating the probe to the point of irrelevance.</p> <p>But it would be unfair to place the blame exclusively on the current administration. The neutering of Brazil&#8217;s biggest anti-corruption investigation is rather the result of many factors —&nbsp;and its very members shoulder some of the blame, too.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="Sergio Moro Operation Car Wash" class="wp-image-43782" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Sergio Moro remains the face of Operation Car Wash. Photo: Marcelo Chello/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>Differing opinions on Operation Car Wash</h2> <p>Six years in, Operation Car Wash still divides Brazilians between passionate supporters and equally zealous detractors. Some praise the probe&#8217;s hawkishness, which led to the unprecedented arrests of politicians and billionaires. Others, however, point the finger to the numerous instances of abusing due process — with sectors of the left, especially the Workers&#8217; Party, calling the entire operation a <a href="">hit job against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva</a>. It has also been seen as paving the way for Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s win in the 2018 presidential election, an allegation boosted by the fact that judge Sergio Moro — the face of the operation — joined Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s cabinet as Justice Minister, right after the election.</p> <p>The truth, as it is often the case, lies in the middle. Reducing Operation Car Wash to a plot to prevent the left from winning a fifth consecutive presidential race is a misleading oversimplification. However, turning a blind eye to the several times prosecutors and judges bent the rules in the name of what they perceived as the &#8220;greater good&#8221; seems equally wrong.</p> <p>Perhaps no transgression is easier to point the finger at than the dangerous proximity between Mr. Moro and the Car Wash prosecutors. Leaked messages published by The Intercept showed that instead of being an impartial umpire in the probe, Mr. Moro allegedly <a href="">quarterbacked many of the prosecution&#8217;s moves</a> — jeopardizing the validity of over 30 convictions.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1269271"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The establishment strikes back</h2> <p>Besides the Car Wash leaks scandal, the operation suffered major setbacks at the hands of the Supreme Court.&nbsp;</p> <p>In March 2019, justices ruled that crimes such as corruption or money laundering must be tried before electoral courts when they are linked to illegal campaign funding. The decision was a major blow, as Brazil&#8217;s Electoral Justice system is known for its slow pace and leniency with transgressions. Many crimes reach the statute of limitations and go unpunished.</p> <p>Five months later, Chief Justice Dias Toffoli <a href="">suspended</a> all probes that used information from money laundering enforcement authorities in criminal cases without a court order. Meanwhile, Justice Alexandre de Moraes killed probes flagged by revenue authorities — a move that benefited relatives of the court&#8217;s members, who were on a list of 133 taxpayers under scrutiny.</p> <p>Around the same time, a panel of four justices decided to annul an 11-year sentence for corruption and money laundering slapped on Aldemir Bendine, a former CEO at Petrobras and Banco do Brasil. In a <a href="">landmark verdict</a>, justices considered that due process was not respected, and that the defense was not given enough time to counter every point presented by the prosecution.</p> <p>Meanwhile, just across the Three Powers Square in Brasília, lawmakers from all ends of the political spectrum banded together to limit the powers of law enforcement to act against them. Congress essentially neutered Sergio Moro&#8217;s anticrime bill and dithered on approving a constitutional amendment that allows prison sentences to be enforced after a first lost appeal — the current Supreme Court interpretation is that all appeals must be completely exhausted before verdicts are enforced.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078964"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>And in the coming weeks, head Car Wash prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol is set to face trial in the National Council of Prosecution Services (CNMP) for an alleged case of abuse of power, when he gave a controversial press conference in 2016 linking all number of crimes to former President Lula, using a <a href="">crudely made PowerPoint presentation</a>. The president of the CNMP is none other than Prosecutor General Augusto Aras, which does not bode well for Mr. Dallagnol.</p> <p>With this progressive dismantling of the operation&#8217;s powers, the task force is fated to wither away, an ironic outcome for the most bombastic anti-corruption investigation in Brazil&#8217;s history.</p> <p>Earlier this week, Mr. Moro said on Twitter that Operation Car Wash is under attack. He defended that Brazil should &#8220;focus on anti-Covid, anti-unemployment, and anti-corruption agendas&#8221; and suggested the county was amid an &#8220;anti-Car Wash phase.&#8221;</p> <p>There is some suggestion that the operation&#8217;s task force has been taken apart in anticipation of Sergio Moro&#8217;s <a href="">potential bid</a> for the presidency in 2022.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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