Less of this.

Photographer: Rodrigo Coca/FotoArena/LatinContent/Getty Images

Brazil's Corruption Crackdown Isn't Just P.R.

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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For anyone who thinks the vast corruption case engulfing Brazil will lead to just a wink and a nod, look again. 

On Tuesday, Brazilian federal police arrested Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, the former head of a government nuclear energy authority, fingered for taking bribes to rig public works contracts for a nuclear power plant. The arrest kicked off a new phase of the rolling bribe and graft probe that already has snared dozens of oil executives and public officials, hobbled President Dilma Rousseff and, by turns, angered and fascinated this nation of 200 million as much as the primetime telenovela.

QuickTake Brazil's Highs and Lows

Dubbed Operation Radioactivity -- the police scribes must have their fun -- the Eletronuclear bust opens a new flank to the so-called Car Wash case. What started as a crackdown on political apparatchiks raiding the state oil company, Petrobras, to top up campaign funds now threatens to spread through the public sector. As federal prosecutor Athayde Ribeiro Costa told reporters: "Corruption in Brazil is endemic and tending to metastasis."

Other than the sheer bulk of this case -- already involving the country's largest contractors, four dozen public officials including ruling party higher-ups and at least $23 billion in public works contracts -- the Car Wash is notable for another reason. It's shaking the timeless Brazilian certainty that public office was a bequest and a white collar a fast pass to impunity.

Just 322 of Brazil's 607,000 prisoners were serving time for corruption last year, and in 23 Brazilian states with reliable judicial records, none of the 160,000 convicted drug felons was behind bars for money laundering, Brazilian reporter Jose Casado found.

Brazil has prosecuted only one foreign bribery case since 2000, when the country joined an international anti-bribery convention.

Such numbers feed the old Brazilian saw that even the worst corruption capers "end up in pizza," a reference to the Sao Paulo soccer club whose feuding owners supposedly settled their scores not with fists but around a table at a pizzeria, serving up an enduring metaphor for Brazilian scandal management.

The recipe may be changing.

A veritable "VIP club" of builders is answering to charges of manipulating contracts and shunting bribes from numbered Swiss accounts to bagmen for Brazil's ruling political parties.

Consider Marcelo Odebrecht, the chief executive of Latin America's biggest builder: Brazilians can hardly drive to work, board a plane or flip a light switch without gracing one of the Norberto Odebrecht Organization's oeuvre. And yet this week, federal judge Sergio Moro accepted charges for corruption and money laundering against the 46-year-old mogul and a handful of other construction caciques.

Driving the Car Wash probe is a cadre of young investigators, auditors and federal police -- honors to the fiercely independent Ministerio Publico, or prosecutors office -- who are well-paid, tutored in the tricks of organized crime and proud (or arrogant) enough to defy traditional power brokers and snub party politics.

"These are Brazil's brightest minds, and they have a fierce sense of doing justice," said political scientist Carlos Pereira, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Of course, that is no guarantee that justice will prevail in Brazil's gridlocked courts, where clever lawyers, paid by the motion, can work the legal code's many indulgences to keep their clients on a treadmill of appeals, sometimes until the statute of limitations expires. No wonder the Brazilian dockets have a backlog of nearly 70 million lawsuits, according to the National Justice Council.

The Car Wash team looks determined to break the logjam. Prosecutors have turned 23 defendants into state witnesses with plea bargaining deals, shattering the cozy pact of silence among thieves. (On Thursday, Beatriz Catta Preta, an attorney representing several of those key state witnesses, told Brazil's TV Globo that she decided to quit the case and close down her law practice after receiving anonymous threats.) The result so far: 119 indictments for corruption and 30 convictions.

More may come. Federal judge Sergio Moro named 13 new Car Wash defendants this week, and any day now Attorney General Rodrigo Janot is expected to indict the case's first lawmakers and perhaps order some to jail.

And if the judges waver, don't bet on that patented Brazilian shrug. The next national protest is scheduled for Aug. 16.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net