The Continuing Struggle Over Brazil’s Financial Intelligence Unit and Its Contribution to the Anticorruption Fight

The successful investigation and prosecution of high-level corruption crimes often requires access to detailed financial intelligence, which in turn requires close cooperation and information-sharing between law enforcement officials and financial intelligence units. This has certainly been the case in Brazil, where the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation—considered the most successful anticorruption operation in Brazilian history—has been made possible in large measure by the reports supplied to federal prosecutors by Brazil’s financial intelligence unit,  known as the Counsel of Control of Financial Activities (COAF). COAF, created in 1998, has provided Brazilian federal prosecutors with suspicious activity reports on potential targets of the Lava Jato investigation, including politicians, high-level public officials, corporations, and business executives. And in the early days of the administration of President Bolsonaro, who positioned himself as an anticorruption champion during the election, there were some signs that COAF’s role in supporting law enforcement efforts would be strengthened. President Bolsonaro, for example, proposed transferring COAF from the Ministry of Economy to the Ministry of Justice—a signal that COAF would continue to work in the support of law enforcement activities—though the Congress rejected this proposal. President Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, also nominated an auditor of the Brazilian Internal Revenue Service who worked in Lava Jato to be the new COAF chief.

But over the course of the last year, the ability of COAF to support anticorruption investigations has been jeopardized, partly by a judicial ruling, but also by other less visible efforts by the administration to undermine the unit’s autonomy.

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Amazonia Is Burning. Corruption Is One of the Reasons.

Amazonia is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, spread over nine South American countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, French Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela), with approximately 60% of the forest (over four million square kilometers) located in in the north of Brazil. Brazilian Amazonia is home to around 45,000 different plant and animal species. This rainforest is also crucial to the global environment, especially with respect to climate change. During the past several months, an increase in the number and extent of forest fires in Brazilian Amazonia has triggered great concern, much of it focused on whether the Bolsonaro Administration’s policies are partly to blame for the widespread fires. While that conversation is no doubt important, it is also crucial to recognize that environmental crimes in Amazonia—including those related to the fires—are in part the product of widespread corruption, and that addressing Amazonia’s environmental crisis will require addressing Brazil’s governance crisis as well.

To understand how and why corruption is contributing to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a bit of background is in order. The greatest environmental threats in this region are the illegal harvesting of timber and the illegal clearing of land (often through burning) to prepare the land for commercial use for agriculture and livestock. (Between 70% and 80% of the deforested area in Amazonia has been used to create pasture for breeding cattle to produce meat for domestic and international consumption.) To be sure, Brazil has laws in place to protect Amazonia from over-exploitation and other forms of environmental damage. About 80% of the land in Amazonia is publicly owned; on this public land, the forest may not be exploited or burned. The remaining 20% of Amazonia is private land owned by individuals or corporations; even for this privately owned land, Brazilian law requires that the owners keep between 50% and 80% of the area intact and unexploited. The Brazilian government is responsible for enforcing these rules and for regulating and overseeing the extraction, transportation, and commercialization of timber from Amazonia. The regulatory system involves government approval of forest management plans, the issuance of permits for timber harvesting and land clearing, and the tracking of timber to ensure that it was not illegally removed from public lands or from the protected areas of private lands.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But in practice, private companies collude with corrupt public servants—forest wardens, police officers, and others—to evade these rules. As a result, substantial quantities of timber are illegally extracted from public lands and protected private areas, and agricultural and livestock interests illegally burn and clear irreplaceable forests. The corrupted public servants not only turn a blind eye to these environmental crimes, but they also warn the infringers about possible inspections by other agents.

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One Year After Bolsonaro’s Election, How Well Is His Administration Fighting Corruption in Brazil?

Exactly one year ago, on October 28th, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and former army captain, was declared the winner of Brazil’s presidential election after receiving 55.13% of the valid votes. He defeated the center-left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, ending the PT’s streak of four consecutive presidential election victories that had begun in 2002.

Brazil’s corruption problem played a major role in the election and in Bolsonaro’s victory. The Car Wash Operation had not only uncovered widespread corruption scandals during the PT administrations, but that Operation also led to the prosecution and conviction of former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, which rendered Lula ineligible to compete in the 2018 election. Moreover, Bolsonaro centered his campaign especially on a vigorous anticorruption discourse, promising to set a new standard of public integrity and to hold corrupt companies and politicians liable for their misconduct (see here and here). To be sure, Bolsonaro did not campaign exclusively on an anticorruption platform. He also positioned himself as the defender of more conservative social values and pledged to take a hardline approach to violent crime and drug trafficking. Yet his anticorruption rhetoric undoubtedly played a key role in his victory.

Even before the election, though, some commentators expressed skepticism that Bolsonaro would undertake genuine efforts to fight corruption and strengthen the institutions needed to promote integrity, and this skeptical view has been echoed by other commentators, both inside and outside of Brazil, during Bolsonaro’s first term (see, for example, here and here).

Now, one year since Bolsonaro’s electoral victory, is a suitable time to analyze the Bolsonaro Administration’s performance so far on anticorruption related issues. Have his substantive accomplishments in this area matched his tough rhetoric?

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The Biggest Beneficiary of the Lava Jato Leaks Is Jair Bolsonaro

As most GAB readers are likely aware, one of the biggest stories in the anticorruption world in the last couple of months has involved the disclosure of private text messages by Brazilian officials involved in the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) Operation. Lava Jato, which has been in progress for five years, is one of the largest anticorruption operations ever, not just in Brazil but worldwide. The operation has secured the convictions of scores of high-level Brazilian political and business leaders once thought to be untouchable, including former President Lula of the Workers Party (PT). Lula’s conviction rendered him ineligible to run in the 2018 presidential election—which he likely would have won—and this factor, many believe, helped far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency. The prosecution of Lula, and a number of other PT figures, triggered accusations, mainly from PT supporters and others on the political left, that the Lava Jato Operation was a politically motivated conspiracy against Lula and the PT. That view had not been taken very seriously by Brazilian or international experts outside of a relatively small circle of left-wing activists, though when Judge Moro, who had presided over most of the Lava Jato cases, including Lula’s, accepted a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, it certainly fed into that narrative.

Then, last month, The Intercept published a series of stories based on leaked/hacked/stolen private text messages among the prosecutors on the Lava Jato Task Force, and between Task Force prosecutors and then-Judge Moro. According to The Intercept and others reporting on this these revelations (dubbed “VazaJato” on social media), the disclosed texts corroborate the longstanding PT narrative that the Lava Jato prosecutors and Judge Moro were ideologically biased against the PT, especially Lula, and that Lula was denied a fair trial as a result. The Intercept described its own reporting as “explosive,” and while one might quibble with the lack of humility (guys, it’s generally better form to let other people praise the importance of your work), the characterization is accurate. Now, I think the evidence of misconduct is less clear than The Intercept and other commentators have suggested (see a useful debate on the legal and ethical issues here), and I find the claims of ideological bias especially flimsy (see here and here). But there’s no doubt that the revelations have tarnished Judge Moro’s reputation, and have also damaged the credibility of the Lava Jato Task Force prosecutors (though unfairly and excessively so, in my view).

Who has benefited from these stories? The conventional wisdom seems to be that the VazaJato stories hurt not only Sergio Moro, but also the Bolsonaro administration—both because Moro is a senior figure in that administration, and because the VazaJato stories imply, or state outright, that Bolsonaro’s election was illegitimate due to the fact that the strongest alternative candidate was barred, on trumped up charges, from running. And the biggest beneficiaries of the VazaJato stories, the conventional view maintains, are Brazil’s left-wing parties (the PT and its allies), mainly because the VazaJato stories show (allegedly) that the PT activists were right all along when they claimed a right-wing conspiracy against Lula. That view is plausible, and seems widely shared (not least by The Intercept’s reporters and editors, who makes no pretense of journalistic neutrality). But I think it’s wrong.

Indeed, I worry that the biggest beneficiary of VazaJato may be President Bolsonaro, and the biggest loser may be the Brazilian left. I say “worry” because I view Bolsonaro as a dangerous bigot and wanna-be authoritarian, one who is also likely to worsen Brazil’s corruption problem. But my personal political views are not really important for present purposes—I mention them in the interests of full disclosure (much as I have been careful, in previous posts, to disclose my cordial professional relationship with Lava Jato Task Force lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol). Rather, my goal here is to explain why I think the VazaJato leaks, and the narrative they have helped to amplify, are likely to help Bolsonaro, while hurting the Brazilian left. There are four reasons for this perhaps counter-intuitive conclusion: Continue reading

Just How Damning Are the Lava Jato Leaks? Some Preliminary Reflections on The Intercept’s Bombshell Story

[Note: My thinking on the issues discussed in this post has evolved somewhat. For the update, see here.]

Two days ago, The Intercept published a collection of dramatic reports (here, here, and here) regarding the long-running Brazilian investigation into high-level corruption. That investigation, known as the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation, which began as in inquiry into money laundering and associated offenses at the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras, has led to the prosecutions and convictions of scores of powerful business leaders and senior politicians—including, most notably, the conviction and imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula). That conviction prevented Lula from competing in the presidential election in 2018, an election that was one by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Anger on the Brazilian political left over Lula’s conviction, as well as the impeachment and removal of his successor Dilma Rouseff, has provoked accusations that the Lava Jato operation is really a right-wing conspiracy, and that the Lava Jato task force—the special team of prosecutors led by Deltan Dallagnol—and Sergio Moro, who presided over the most significant Lava Jato trials, including Lula’s, are politically biased enemies of the Left who are engineering a kind of coup d’etat through the judicial system. Many people, both in Brazil and internationally (me included), have pushed back against these accusations.

The Intercept’s recent reports assert that the critics were right all along. The evidence for this consists mainly of a huge quantity of data (texts, emails, and video and audio recordings) from a cell phone—almost certainly Mr. Dallagnol’s, based on the fact that all of the reported exchanges involve him. The Intercept has published a set of stories (some in English, some in Portuguese) based on a small portion of this material, mainly text message exchanges; the reporters emphasize that more is likely to emerge as they and other journalists review more of the leaked/hacked data. The big story here is that, according to the Intercept’s reporting, these text messages provide evidence of serious ethical breaches, particularly by then-Judge Moro, as well as evidence that the prosecutors knew their case against Lula was not strong, and, most damningly, that the task force prosecutors were motivated by partisan antipathy toward Lula and his party (the Worker’s Party, or PT), despite their claims to the contrary.

What to make of this? The news is clearly bad for the Lava Jato operation, the task force, and those of us who have supported the operation and defended it against various accusations and attacks. The question I want to address here is: Just how bad is it? My tentative answer is that, while the Intercept’s reports reveal some very upsetting, disappointing, and in some cases likely unethical conduct, the leaked text messages quoted in these first reports are not as damning as either the Intercept or other preliminary reports have made them appear. In this post (which will be longer than usual), I’ll try to work through the various allegations and associated texts and do my best to assess which revelations are most serious, which least so, and where we really need more evidence before making even a preliminary judgment. Continue reading

The Dark Side of Righteous Anger: Talking about Corruption After Alan García’s Suicide

Two weeks ago, former Peruvian President Alan García shot himself when authorities came to arrest him on corruption charges. Garcia’s suicide provoked a diverse range of reactions. Among these, one of the most disturbing was a vulgar tweet from Major Olimpio, a right-wing Brazilian politician who tweeted: “The ex-President of Peru committed suicide upon being arrested. Hopefully this trend catches on here in Brazil. It would big a big savings for the country.” Olimpio, of course, is referring to the dozens of politicians in Brazil implicated in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal.

Olimpio’s tweet taps into the white-hot anger and resentment that continues to sweep across Latin America in response to the revelations of high-level corruption throughout the region. That anger is understandable. Investigations growing out of the Lava Jato operation—particularly those involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes across 11 countries in Latin America—have exposed pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government. Ten former Latin American presidents (including García) have been or are currently being investigated for corruption, along with dozens of other high level officials in multiple countries, and possibly hundreds of rank-and-file officers who were a part of these schemes. But while popular fury over corruption is justified, it should never be okay to mock suicide or make implicit death threats. And while Olimpio’s tweet about García is a particularly extreme case, this sort of hostile, callous, violent rhetoric is becoming disturbingly common in the public dialogue about corruption and its perpetrators in Latin America. For example, the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his son both tweeted menacing threats to Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, during the campaign saying that he was “nursing on the teat of corrupt politicians in jail” because he had visited a jailed politician, and that it was “good that he already knew what it was like to go to prison.” Since Brazil is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Haddad himself had not even been accused with corruption offenses (though several of his political allies had been), these comments were deeply disturbing.

This needs to stop. The anger over corruption is understandable, and to a certain degree a healthy development, given that for so long grudging or cynical resignation was the norm. But rather than channel this anger into violent threats, everyone—especially those in positions of power—needs to temper their anger with more civility. There is a wrong way and a right way to talk about corruption. Crude violent rhetoric is the wrong way.

So what’s the right way? Let me suggest two more appropriate ways to harness the fury over corruption and channel it in a more productive direction.

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Proposed Changes in Brazil’s Anticorruption Legislation: A Summary and Critique

Early last month, Brazilian Minister of Justice Sergio Moro (a former judge best known for his role in the so-called Car Wash corruption cases) introduced an extensive anti-crime legislation package. The package includes many measures, including some related to things like violent crime, but it notably includes five measures that are especially relevant to Brazil’s fight against corruption. What are these proposed changes, and what would their implications be?

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