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Threats against anti-corruption framework in Brazil multiply

Transparência Internacional - Brasil

Corruption remains a big concern for Brazilians — more so than anywhere else in the Latin America region. The Global Corruption Barometer — Latin America and Caribbean 2019 highlights that nine in ten Brazilians see corruption in the public sector as a major problem.

Bribery and corruption in Brazil

More positively, petty corruption seems to affect relatively few people. The country scored the third lowest bribery rate in the region (11 per cent) for bribes paid to access basic public services.

A small number of people reported paying bribes in their dealings with services such as schools (4 per cent), hospitals (5 per cent) and the courts (5 per cent).

Contrasting this data with Brazil’s high levels of overall perceptions of corruption — Brazil scores only 35 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 — it is clear that grand corruption is an issue of great concern.

Citizens are hopeful for change

Hopes for Brazil’s newly elected government were high when President Jair Bolsonaro took office. He campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and invited Sergio Moro — the former judge of the groundbreaking Lava Jato investigation (Operation Carwash) who succeeded in sending powerful politicians and business tycoons to jail — to become the Minister of Justice.

This hopeful sentiment is also reflected in people’s (48 per cent) positive evaluation of the government’s anti-corruption efforts during its initial two months in office.

Expectations have soured, however, since the poll was taken. Several developments threaten not only Lava Jato, but also the important progress Brazil has achieved in its anti-corruption legislative and institutional frameworks.

Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

While political pushback against anti-corruption efforts is nothing new, recent events raise concerns.

Congress approved a controversial law intended to punish the supposedly abuse of authority by prosecutors and judges. While updating Brazilian legislation on the issue is essential to combating abuses, the legal language provides an avenue for misuse by powerful individuals to intimidate law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Minister Moro’s anti-corruption reforms package is currently stalled in Congress, with little hope of approval.

What this means for dirty money

In the past few months, several pillars of the country’s anti-corruption framework have been under attack. The hard-won independence of law enforcement institutions is threatened by political interference, and Brazil’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) is paralyzed in its essential duties by a highly controversial injuction by a Supreme Court judge.

The restraining order forbids the FIU from sharing detailed information on suspicious financial transactions. It also halted all ongoing criminal investigations that were using such information without previous judicial permission.

This ruling goes against common practices by FIUs worldwide and is producing serious consequences as virtually all money laundry investigations in Brazil — as elsewhere — use this type of financial intelligence report.

Investigations run by tax authorities into “politically exposed persons” have also been blocked by the Supreme Court and the auditors involved are currently being investigated in a criminal inquiry widely considered illegal.

Lava Jato cases affected

Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court also determined that electoral courts are responsible for hearing corruption-related cases. They are, however, wholly unfit to conduct extensive investigations into complex criminal cases. More recently, it overruled the first conviction of a Lava Jato defendant based on a technicality.

The setbacks have also reached Operation Carwash’s inner circle. Its taskforce of prosecutors in Brasilia collectively resigned in protest to the Prosecutor General’s refusal to investigate a Supreme Court judge and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, despite what they considered to be substantial evidences against them.

Taking action

Brazil’s anti-corruption framework is therefore under threat from all sides. Its citizens, however, are the most confident in the region (88 per cent) in their belief that individuals can make a difference in the fight against corruption.

Collective action and a vibrant civil society remain the best alternative to reverse the mounting setbacks and to ensure the government and Congress uphold their campaign promises to deliver on much-needed anti-corruption reforms.

*Bruno Brandão is executive director at Transparência Internacional — Brasil. Guilherme France is research coordinator at TI Brasil’s Anti-Corruption Knowledge Center.