Security and Foreign Policy

Do We Need More Lava Jatos in Latin America?

Operaçao Lava Jato, widely viewed as Latin America’s most extensive anti-corruption investigation to date, has implicated a number of public officials throughout the region. Adriana Melchor highlights the effects of Lava Jato on Latin American politics, exploring whether another such moment is needed to sustain the anti-corruption efforts.


Despite his initial defiance, Inácio Lula da Silva — former Brazilian president and a symbol of social justice for many of his supporters — turned himself into the police on 8 April in the midst of his race to re-election. Lula surrendered to the authorities after being convicted of benefitting from the renovation of a beachfront apartment by OAS, an engineering firm, with bribes estimated at 3.7m reais value (approximately $1.1m).

Before Lula’s fate turned sour it was his protégé, Dilma Roussef, who faced a major blow to her political career when senate voted in favour of her impeachment, triggered by economic decline, government paralysis and bribery linked to her presidency.

Brazilian politicians are not alone in their demise. Operaçao Lava Jato, widely viewed as Latin America’s most extensive anti-corruption investigation to date, implicates a number of public officials in other parts of the continent.

Lava Jato began in 2014 as an investigation prompted by suspicions that Brazilian state-owned oil company, Petrobras, was accepting bribes from firms (including construction giant Odebrecht) in exchange for contracts. By December 2017, Lava Jato had led to accusations against almost three hundred people and nearly 180 convictions for crimes such as corruption, drug trafficking and money laundering.

Lava Jato has had reverberations across the entire Latin American continent. The resignation of Peru’s former president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, is in large part explained by business ties with Odebrecht and the fateful release of videos allegedly showing Kuczynski’s allies offering lawmakers a share of public work projects in return for political support in his impeachment vote. Officials from other Latin American countries, including Venezuela and Bolivia, have also admitted to bribery in connection to Odebrecht.

Lava Jato confirms an uncomfortable reality about the rule of law in Latin America — namely that many government officials in the region have illegally amassed wealth at little to no cost to their careers.

Equally, the investigation is proof that accountability to the public is being taken more seriously than ever before. Lava Jato has managed to break a terrible habit of turning a blind eye to extensive webs of bribery and other forms of criminality within governments.

Lava Jato will affect elections in Latin America during 2018. This year, 350 million citizens are expected to participate in presidential votes across Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Paraguay. Left-right affiliations will bear some importance in voter preferences, but citizens are largely predicted to make their choice based on their reaction to the corruption scandals that ravaged their continent. Citizen security and weak economic growth will also be top of mind for those casting their ballots in Latin America this year.

Besides its potential to sway electoral outcomes, Lava Jato may also be a prompt for constitutional reform — at least in Brazil, now a symbol for Latin America’s fight against corruption.

The principle of “foro privilegiado” is a special legal standing codified in the Brazilian constitution, which dictates that politicians may only be tried in the supreme court. Given the slow pace of courts and the fact that many politicians choose to resign from public office once they are indicted, foro privilegiado has translated into near immunity from prosecution for those who fall under its scope.

In the wake of Lava Jato, foro privilegiado has been subject to increased scrutiny by the Brazilian congress and Deltan Dallagnol, the prosecutor at the forefront of bribery investigations in Brazil. Although there is a worrying proclivity amongst Latin American governments to manipulate constitutions for political gain, eliminating the legal privilege enjoyed by fraudulent public officials would ensure greater equality before the law.

Naturally, any argument that views Lava Jato as an all-powerful catalyst for reform has its shortcomings — namely that it fails to explain why other Latin American countries implicated in the scandal have not pursued justice with as much zeal as Brazil and Peru.

Evidence suggests that Venezuela has paid the most in bribes to Odebrecht after Brazil. Yet to date, no formal investigation into the Odebrecht case has been launched. Venezuela’s former attorney general, Luisa Ortega, fled the country in fear of persecution following her attempts to uncover the links between Odebrecht and president Nicolas Maduro.

Still, Brazil and Peru’s influence has spread to other nations of the region. In Ecuador, former vice-president Jorge Glas was sentenced to six years in jail in December 2017 after he was found guilty of receiving bribes from Odebrecht in return for handing state contracts to the firm. In the same month, Colombia’s former vice-minister of transport Gabriel Garcia Morales was sentenced to five years and two months in prison after he admitted to receiving millions of dollars in bribes from Odebrecht.

Lava Jato has catapulted Latin American politics into chaos, but also provided citizens of the region with the government accountability and transparency they resolutely deserve. Lava Jato has underscored the true cost of corruption, but also prompted action from within government to combat that same problem.

Do we need more Lava Jatos to sustain momentum in Latin America’s anti-corruption efforts? One would hope not. Respect for the rule of law is a fundamental part of any functional state, not a luxury. That said, it is acceptable to feel some gratitude for Lava Jato’s unprecedented payoff.

Adriana holds a Bachelor’s in Social Policy and Government from the London School of Economics and has worked in financial services for a number of years. At University, her studies focused on international welfare state analysis, international development and economics. She is fluent in Spanish and proficient in French.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Andre Penner

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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