Traffic is a small price to pay for safety.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Brazil's Elite Shouldn't Get Off Easy

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Some years ago, Latin America skeptics delighted in poking fun at tiny, landlocked Bolivia for maintaining a navy. "Why not?" the Bolivians retorted. "Brazil has a justice ministry."

Luciana Tamburini is not amused. An inspector for Rio de Janeiro's transit department, she has worked five nights a week at police checkpoints to catch drunks and scofflaw drivers. The Cariocas, as Rio natives are called, are not fans of the so-called Dry Law barricades, which snarl traffic and make innocents pay for the sins of the soused. But few would deny that a little gridlock is a small price to pay for safer streets.

Except, apparently, for Joao Carlos de Souza Correa. Three years ago Souza Correa, a Rio circuit judge, was flagged down at a roadblock where Tamburini was posted. He didn't appear inebriated, but he was driving without a license, registration or plates.

Most mortals would suck it up and pay the $100 fine. Souza Correa threw a fit and announced he was a judge. "You may be a judge, but you're not God," Tamburini replied. Souza Correa, who is known for his off-duty hauteur, demanded she be arrested and handcuffed. When the checkpoint officers demurred, he rang a police pal who sent a squad car, and the whole imbroglio landed at the local precinct and finally in court.

Early this year, Tamburini was convicted of offending the judge's honor and eventually fined about $2,000 in damages, around five times her weekly wage. On Nov. 12, a panel of three judges turned down her appeal.

Brazilians know the script. In this lopsided society where pedigree is destiny, the privileged and pampered fall back on a jingle that goes back, as anthropologist Roberto DaMatta has observed, to the days of the plantation bosses: "Voce sabe com quem esta falando?" -- "Do you know whom you're talking to?"

This is the sort of outrage that sent Brazilians into the streets last year ahead of the lavishly funded World Cup. The Pew Research Center found that although 88 percent of Brazilians agreed that law and order and a fair-handed justice system were vital to the country, only 14 percent believed Brazil did any of these things very well.

The Correa Souzas of Brazil ought to take note. Voters have shown they can shelve scruples as long as their jobs and welfare safety nets are safe, as President Dilma Rousseff's recent re-election amid the widening Petrobras scandal suggests. But public figures flouting the God card don't go down so well anymore. "A judge is a citizen, like anyone else," Ricardo Lewandowski, chief justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court, commented this week.

Exit: "Do you know whom you're talking to?" Enter: "Who do you think you are?"

That sentiment is what drove Sao Paulo attorney Flavia Penido to the Web. Incensed over the verdict against Tamburini, Penido started an Internet defense fund for the embattled Rio transit inspector. She hoped to raise $2,000 and ended up with $8,000. Brazilian Twitter accounts are ablaze with #tamburini posts, and a group of sympathizers hurled up a Facebook page to vent outrage and a few comic petards. One cartoon showed a female traffic cop ticketing a saintly, white-clad driver: "You may be God, but you're not a judge."

"Brazilian society is changing," said Penido. Maybe not in time to spare Tamburini her collision with the judge, but enough to suggest that under every black robe stands a pair of clay feet. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net