The acrimonious end of Operation Car Wash

and . Feb 06, 2021
Operation Car Wash went out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Photo: Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock Operation Car Wash went out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Photo: Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock

In an April 2020 article, The Brazilian Report called former Federal Judge Sergio Moro “the most influential figure in Brazilian politics in the 2010s.” He was the conductor of Operation Car Wash, the biggest anti-corruption effort not only in Brazil’s history, but perhaps in the world. It was, without a doubt, the most significant political event in the country since its return to democracy in 1985. 

It began on March 17, 2014, when federal marshals cracked down on a money-laundering scheme operating out of a Brasília gas station, just three kilometers from the Congress building. Since then, every major political shift in the country has been a direct or indirect consequence of Operation Car Wash.

</p> <p>After seven years, 278 guilty verdicts, and the arrests of a former president and a former House Speaker under its belt, the anti-corruption task force is now over. And it went out not with a bang, but with a whimper, under a cloud after allegations of misdeeds, partisanship, and profiteering.</p> <p>That this end comes under a president who was elected on an anti-corruption platform only adds insult to injury.</p> <h2>From zero to hero … back to zero</h2> <p>Everything about Operation Car Wash is superlative. The schemes under investigation took place in Brazil’s largest company, the state-owned oil and gas firm Petrobras. The amount of data compiled through Car Wash&#8217;s 79 stages forced the Federal Police to create a new system to store all the data. At one point, <a href="">suspicious transactions</a> identified by the operation amounted to BRL 8 trillion (USD 1.5 trillion) and involved every single mainstream political party in Brazil. This outstripped the country&#8217;s entire GDP in 2015, which sat at just BRL 5.9 trillion.</p> <p>The group of young prosecutors who carried out this earth-shattering operation once <a href="">compared themselves to Eliot Ness</a> —&nbsp;and with good reason. Thanks in large part to their mastery of communications skills, using flashy operations against high-profile targets, they hijacked the news cycle and enjoyed the unwavering support of the mainstream media, who were titillated by Operation Car Wash&#8217;s carefully planned leaks.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="664" src="" alt="Pro Car Wash demonstration with plastic figureheads of former President Lula as a prisoner. Photo: Massis/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-56273" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Pro-Car Wash demonstration with plastic figureheads of former President Lula as a prisoner. Photo: Massis/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>The operation broke paradigms. Before it came along, anti-corruption investigations in Brazil fell flat on their faces, ending up locked away in a drawer due to procedural mishaps. That wasn’t the case with Operation Car Wash. For the first time in Brazilian history, members of the elite sectors of society <a href="">were sent to prison</a> — and stayed there. It cracked politicians&#8217; sense of bulletproof immunity, even arresting an active senator — a first in democratic times.</p> <p>Any given day, Brazilians could wake up with the news that marshals were raiding the house of another important business mogul or politician, giving everyday people a rare feeling of vindication.</p> <p>In 2015 and 2016, the scandals unveiled by the operation pushed Brazilians to the biggest wave of protests seen since the end of the <a href="">military dictatorship</a>. They called for the moralization of Brazilian politics and celebrated the work being done by the task force — a series of events that would culminate with the removal of then-President Dilma Rousseff, in May 2016.</p> <p>But towards the end of its run, the operation&#8217;s reputation was tarnished beyond repair.&nbsp;</p> <p>The marriage of its leading figures to Jair Bolsonaro — Mr. Moro became the Justice Minister in the Bolsonaro administration — highlighted a political bias against the center-left Workers&#8217; Party. Meanwhile, <a href="">leaks of private conversations</a> between prosecutors exposed questionable investigation methods that would make the most crooked lawyers blush.</p> <p>Since its inception, Operation Car Wash suffered attacks from all sides of the political spectrum.&nbsp;</p> <p>And its fortunes changed for the worse in 2019 — coincidentally, after Mr. Bolsonaro took office as president. A few months after his inauguration, Mr. Bolsonaro completely <a href="">overhauled Brazil&#8217;s money laundering enforcement agency</a>, which had been pivotal in allowing Car Wash prosecutors to follow the money trail leading to corrupt politicians.&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, the task force would be forced to disclose all of its sensitive information with the Prosecutor General&#8217;s office — led by a man <a href="">handpicked by the president</a> and who had been highly critical of the operation&#8217;s methods.</p> <p>What was perhaps the hardest defeat by Operation Car Wash, however, came midway through 2019, when website The Intercept <a href="">revealed</a> a series of private conversations showing that Sergio Moro, instead of acting as a neutral umpire — used his position as judge to quarterback prosecutors and tilt the scales of justice.</p> <p>Months later, he would <a href="">resign from the cabinet</a> while accusing President Bolsonaro of meddling with the Federal Police to safeguard his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, from corruption investigations. After a brief sabbatical, Mr. Moro buried his reputation by joining a consulting firm which has among its clients the Odebrecht group&nbsp;— which operated for decades based on a <a href="">transnational bribery scheme</a>.</p> <p>Without the degree of uncritical media support it once had, its enemies in the political establishment felt empowered to bleed its powers dry.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Scrapping the Car Wash legacy</h2> <p>The task force formally ended on February 3, with prosecutors no longer being exclusively assigned to its cases. But the <a href="">process of dismantling</a> Operation Car Wash is not over.</p> <p>Momentum is growing within the Supreme Court to trial a case in which former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who <a href="">served over one year in jail</a> for corruption and money laundering — challenges his guilty verdict, claiming Mr. Moro&#8217;s bias prevented him from having a fair trial. And Lula&#8217;s defense team has recently gained access to the entire archive of messages exchanged by the former judge and the prosecutors.&nbsp;</p> <p>One could expect timely leaks that would be embarrassing for the task force.</p> <p>Lula was the operation&#8217;s <a href="">white whale</a> —&nbsp;a popular former leader who was prevented from running against Mr. Bolsonaro in 2018 due to his criminal convictions. If he manages to overturn his conviction, the greatest feat of Operation Car Wash would be wiped out completely.</p> <p>This won&#8217;t be just a case about procedural orthodoxy.&nbsp;</p> <p>The characters involved make sure that this will be a trial as politically charged as it can be. &#8220;In recent years, both Operation Car Wash and the Supreme Court showed that, for them, due process is a mere detail in the arena of political debate — not the very foundation of the law,&#8221; <a href="">wrote</a> Rubens Glezer, a Ph.D. in law from the University of São Paulo.</p> <p>While the investigation has already been wound up, this upcoming trial will determine whether the legacy of Operation Car Wash will be wiped out as well.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Renato Alves

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

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