Brazil in Fright as Moro’s Untouchables Close In on Iconic Lula

  • Nation’s political psyche ensnared in fight against corruption
  • Graft-busters nearing limit of public’s stomach for fight

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio da Silva left office in 2010 so beloved -- U.S. President Barack Obama called him "the man" -- and with approval ratings so historically high that the trappings of tributes filled 10 shipping containers.

There was wine from French ex-heads of state Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, an oxcart from a popular music group, and a crèche his wife Marisa would place in the presidential palace’s front yard. It would all have to go, eventually, involving more than a million reais ($308,000) in shipping and storage costs, and it was the question, among many others, of who paid those costs and why that landed the man known as Lula before his interrogators.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

"Mrs. Marisa shipped the baby lamb, shipped Jesus Christ, shipped the magi king and took it all" to a storage space in Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most popular living president told police during his first detention for questioning, in March.

In the cafés and in the opinion pages, in social settings and social media, Brazilians are wondering whether the hallowed group of prosecutors, police, and the tip of the spear -- Judge Sergio Moro -- who have uprooted billions in graft and bribes in the corruption scandal known as Carwash are overreaching with a case against the former president that appears thinner on paper than when presented in theatrical press conferences.

"I think Lula deserved a strong lesson, but I’m not sure I want to see him behind bars," said Benan Araujo, 45, a hairdresser in Rio de Janeiro. "I don’t know, are we ready for that?"

Major Crackdown

Carwash has invaded that political psyche just in the aftermath of the impeachment of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and amid the country’s worst recession in decades. Several members of the current Democratic Movement Party administration and Congress also face investigations for allegedly benefiting from the scheme at Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the Rio-based energy behemoth known as Petrobras. In contrast to Lula, Rousseff and Michel Temer, the man who replaced her, suffer some of the worst approval ratings in Brazil’s history.

Sergio Moro

Photographer: Miguel Schincariol/AFP via Getty Images

The crackdown has involved more than 30 raids across the country, in mansions and in skyscrapers. More than 200 have been accused, and more than 100 sentenced, in a country not used to seeing powerful people behind bars.

The amount of evidence has made most of Moro’s decisions indisputable; his indictments have been upheld by a higher court more than 95 percent of the time. In the case against Lula, the storage costs were part of the 3.7 million reais in expenses covered by a construction company, OAS SA, that prosecutors say were a kickback to Lula in return for public contracts the builder won during his presidency.

Deeming them bribes, the prosecution team charged Lula, 70, on Sept. 14 with corruption and money laundering. Former OAS Chief Executive Officer Leo Pinheiro was sentenced by Moro to more than 16 years in jail for defrauding contracts from Petrobras.

Moro’s Methods

Moro’s methods have included posting evidence on a website, sometimes just hours after the arrests have been made and charges filed. The strategy has helped garner public support and shield the investigation from the underworld’s attempts to pull strings and kill the probe.

And then, when it touched Lula, it struck a public nerve, putting the task force on defense and forcing Moro and his squad to repeatedly deny they were motivated by political opposition to Lula’s potential run in 2018 for the Workers Party, which he founded and which was handed defeats in local municipal elections this week.

In March, 82 percent of the population backed Moro’s efforts against Lula. In July, a separate poll on Moro’s work and one not measuring exactly the same responses, nonetheless found a corresponding figure closer to 62 percent. In the introduction to a treatise he wrote on defeating corruption, Moro, 44, defended his "adoption of exceptional remedies" as not "an arbitrary choice" but one that’s necessary "to break the vicious cycle.”

The day of Lula’s indictment, lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol addressed the subject of the operation’s integrity.

“There are more than 300 public agents, hired by public examination, acting on this case," Dallagnol said. "To say that all these people with different backgrounds and with no political affiliation are joining forces to maliciously harm someone is to construct a conspiracy theory."

Public Opinion

Some of the detentions for questioning were seen as going overboard. Some detainees said they would have testified and cooperated with authorities if they had been given the chance. Critics accused Moro of using a population weary of corruption as a grand jury, convicting his targets first in the court of public opinion.

“Selective investigations, interviews that seem like summary judgments and unnecessary imprisonment can weaken Carwash and be of use to the corrupt,” political commentator Kennedy Alencar said in Sept. 22 video on his blog. “Criticizing the operation can’t be seen as support to corruption. On the contrary."

In front of cameras, Dallagnol labeled Lula as "the supreme commander" and the "conductor of the criminal orchestra" to keep his party in power. Yet, the written accusation didn’t include charges of "criminal organization," nor payments from contractors for lectures or anything from other investigations of Lula. It was restricted to the money spent on transporting and storing the presidential archives as well as the renovation of an apartment allegedly intended for Lula’s use.

The former president has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, any current connection to the apartment he said he once considered buying, and says he’s the victim of a political vendetta.

“For now, the impression remains that, unable to provide more robust evidence against Lula, the Federal Prosecution Office tries to fill the gaps with rhetoric,” Folha de São Paulo newspaper wrote in an editorial the next day.

In the end, a sentence for Lula commensurate with the crimes Moro has alleged, and barring any more profound connections to the Petrobras corruption, could serve instead to strengthen Lula’s political clout.

“Carwash is trying to respond to a request that comes from society, but promoting themselves...is not in their jobs," Robert Romano, a professor of ethics and politics at Unicamp University, said of Moro and his team. “There is a trend toward ’anti-Lula-ism,’ but that only makes him omnipotent and powerful."

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