Brazilian President Bolsonaro Disbands Operation “Lava Jato” Task Force

Since his electoral campaign in 2018, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly and publicly demonstrated his commitment to the issue of corruption.  That commitment, however, has devolved from rooting out corruption to rooting out law enforcement officials and agencies dedicated to combating corruption.

After selecting Judge Sérgio Moro – a national hero for overseeing the multiyear anticorruption investigation known as Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) — as his Attorney General, Bolsonaro proceeded in 2020 to fire Maurício Valeixo, the chief of the Brazilian national police, as investigators reportedly were investigatng a number of Bolsonaro’s supporters, including Bolsonaro’s son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro.  Valeixo’s firing precipitated the resignation of Judge Moro, as well as charges by Moro that Bolsonaro was seeking improperly to politicize the Ministry of Justice.

Despite the political and popular outcry that followed, Bolsonaro has remained resolute in undermining Brazilian law enforcement’s efforts to uncover corruption.  In October 2020, even while he himself was under investigation by the Brazilian Supreme Court for alleged misconduct, Bolsonaro stated that he had “ended” Lava Jato, declaring, “There isn’t any more corruption in the government.”

Although the Lava Jato team evidently tried to continue its investigative work, on February 3 it “announced its termination after several of its investigators were seconded to another federal anti-organised crime task force.”  Moro’s successor as Attorney General, Augusto Aras – who had once said that Moro’s allegations against Bolsonaro, if true, “would reveal the practice of illegal actions” – dismissed the disbanding of the task force as amounting to no more than a change of name.

Risk and compliance officers at companies doing business in Brazil should not underestimate the significance of Bolsonaro’s latest action.  By snuffing out the Car Wash investigation altogether, he has not only eliminated the most effective anti-corruption force in Brazil, but signaled to his supporters and to other Brazilian politicians that corruption carries no consequences – at least if they continue to support or remain silent about his and his administration’s malversations.  As Bolsonaro has another two years in his current term of office, and is likely to seek reelection in 2022, it is equally likely that Brazil will return to the levels of pervasive corruption in Brazilian government and business that preceded Bolsonaro’s election.

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