Brazil’s democracy suffers another blow with ‘Operation Car Wash’ leaks

Demonstrators in front of the Justice Ministry in Brasilia on Monday call for the release of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the resignation of Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in front of the Justice Ministry in Brasilia on Monday call for the release of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the resignation of Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Brazilian offshoot of the online news site the Intercept disclosed old private messages between now-Justice Minister Sérgio Moro and the task force of “Operation Car Wash,” the wide ranging corruption probe started in 2014 that led to the conviction and jailing of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, among many other high-profile figures.

Moro, a former crusading anti-corruption judge, exchanged messages with members of the attorney general’s office, including Deltan Dellagnol, who coordinated the Operation Car Wash task force. Among the conversations, the report shows that Dellagnol was reticent about the robustness of evidence against da Silva, later convicted by Moro. Car Wash prosecutors also worried about the political impact of an interview between da Silva, in prison, and journalist Monica Bergamo near the 2018 election, which could help candidate Fernando Haddad, supported by da Silva.

More seriously, the messages show clear collusion between a judge and prosecutors to convict those involved in the operation.

Beyond the immediate implications — such as the possible reversal of convictions and the political impact to Moro and to President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to appoint him to the Supreme Court — it remains to be seen how Brazilians will react.

The Car Wash investigations (known as “Lava Jato” in Portuguese) uncovered millions of dollars of theft by white-collar criminals and off-the-books kickbacks by Brazil’s largest construction firms to politicians and political parties, including the governing Workers’ Party and its allies in the ruling coalition.

Car Wash played a big role in the wave of sentiment against da Silva’s Workers’ Party in the past few years. That sentiment helped catapult the current far-right president to power.

Collusion between a judge and members of the federal prosecutor’s office is illegal and for that Moro should resign intermediately. Furthermore, it would be unthinkable for him to even be considered for the Supreme Court.

But there’s more at stake here for Brazil.

The Car Wash investigation enjoyed broad popular support and was hailed abroad as an example of the strength of an independent judiciary going after powerful interests. If proof were to emerge that the investigations and prosecutions were politically motivated (as many da Silva supporters charge), it would be a mortal blow to institutional independence and credibility — a dangerous development in a country already in the grips of right-wing populism and facing deep economic and social crisis.

Widespread distrust of institutions will feed the “salvationist” narrative taking hold in Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro is a direct product of that — and he won before these recent revelations about Lava Jato.

It’s important to note that no evidence has emerged exonerating da Silva and others convicted by the operation. It’s possible that the prosecutions were flawed, even marked by illegal practices, but serious crimes were still committed. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide what cases to revisit or convictions to throw out. At this point, it’s impossible to predict the outcome since the court has become increasingly politicized, much more than a normal lower court.

The Supreme Court’s decisions can be (and often are) guided by popular moods. In social media, there is already a battle of hashtags raging between supporters and opponents of the Lava Jato (as well as between supporters of Bolsonaro and da Silva).

For now, Moro deserves nothing but political ostracism and to answer for his actions to the competent authorities. A full review of Operation Car Wash is also necessary, as well as the purge of those involved in the conversations and practices of blatant illegalities.

Brazil’s future as an institutional democracy may depend on what happens next.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian freelance journalist.

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