Part of a continuing series on Latin America’s crackdown on corruption.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is predictable in at least one way – he usually gives advance warning about controversial decisions. Since at least mid-August, Bolsonaro had been telling the press that he would likely ignore the mechanism used for the past 16 years to appoint an independent Chief General Prosecutor (PGR), favoring instead someone “aligned” with him (the same word was repeated on several occasions). Last week, he did it. The president tapped the 66-year-old prosecutor and lawyer Augusto Aras to head the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), ostensibly because of his affinity with Bolsonaro on topics such as “respecting rural producers” and “Christian values.”
“PGR is like a wedding. I need someone who I can trust. If it doesn’t work out, we divorce,” said Bolsonaro.
This shock to the MPF is not an isolated event. Bolsonaro is also trying to curtail the autonomy of the Federal Police and the Federal Customs Agency, pushing for a broad leadership change and overruling decisions by his justice minister, Sérgio Moro. Also, the government’s plan to overhaul the highly respected Financial Activities Control Council (COAF), the agency responsible for monitoring suspicious financial transactions and a major anti-money laundering tool, is – at best – a risky move. COAF has been transferred to the Central Bank under a new name, Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), and its respected director was sacked. Senior investigators say the new institution is more exposed to political interference and less aligned with other law enforcement agencies.
In the last issue of Americas Quarterly, we warned about the growing Mani Pulite risk in Brazil: namely, that spectacular anti-corruption operations fail to significantly improve the rule of law and diminish corruption, like with Italy’s “Operation Clean Hands” in the 1990s. Sadly, it looks like this somber scenario is coming to fruition under Bolsonaro.
Despite all the major operations against the Workers’ Party (PT), the bolsonarista camp believes the MPF is biased towards the left. Its prosecutors have historically played a key role in defending indigenous rights, cracking down on environmental crimes and investigating human rights violations – causes that Bolsonaro has opposed for decades. As president, he now wants to shape the MPF into a true conservative force within his orbit. His populist instincts reject the notion that a government agency should be run by someone who is truly independent from him (one can’t miss the similarities to Donald Trump’s tense relations with the Department of Justice and the FBI).
But other more mundane reasons may be guiding the president as well. The appointment immediately fueled speculation in Brazilian media about a hidden agreement between Aras and the Bolsonaro clan to protect Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, although there is no evidence of such a pact. The president’s eldest son is the target of a money laundering investigation. According to press reports, staffers in his cabinet –including people accused of having ties to criminal groups in Rio – allegedly paid back part of their salaries to him. A federal case would be conducted (or dismissed) by the next PGR.
Previously, Bolsonaro had overruled Moro’s pick to head the Rio de Janeiro federal police unit, which is handling his son’s case. And it was COAF that first flagged suspicious financial activities involving staffers in Flávio Bolsonaro’s cabinet.
“Unfortunately, a minor issue, one of the most banal crimes involving politicians (allegedly committed by Bolsonaro’s son) is hampering the fight against corruption in Brazil,” said the former leading Lava Jato prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima.
What is more concerning is that the attacks on Brazil’s ability to fight corruption are not only coming from the Planalto Presidential Palace. In July, Supreme Court Chief Justice José Antonio Dias Toffoli unilaterally blocked COAF from sending information to law enforcement agencies without judicial authorization – paralyzing all probes based on financial intelligence, including Flávio Bolsonaro’s. The decision was part of a broader rapprochement between Toffoli and the president, highly criticized by other justices. The climate in Brasília has also changed following the embarrassing “Vaza Jato” leaks of messages among members of the Lava Jato team. For the first time, the Supreme Court reversed a sentence issued by Moro. The overturn was based on a procedural argument that could apply to several other Lava Jato sentences. Also, the justices will again discuss whether defendants can go to jail before their appeals are exhausted; a change in jurisprudence could affect several high-profile figures behind bars, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Meanwhile, Congress has seized on legitimate questions raised by Vaza Jato to push back against enforcement agencies. Originally intended to check judicial overreach, the Law Against Abuse of Authority recently approved in the Senate now includes elements of the absurd, such as limiting the time of investigations or prohibiting the use of handcuffs in most arrests. Under pressure from Moro and his base, Bolsonaro vetoed 19 articles of the bill, but Congress is threatening to reverse them. Lawmakers are also mobilizing to increase legal protections for elected authorities, restricting investigators’ power to collect information, make arrests and seize evidence.
In more normal times, Bolsonaro’s attempts to weaken law enforcement agencies would have already been alarming. Under the current conditions in Brasília, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Brazil’s anti-corruption environment is facing an unprecedented backlash. Whether we are seeing a passing storm or an incapacitating blow will depend a lot on public reaction. Most of the anti-Workers’ Party camp still does not see the president as a threat to anti-corruption. On the opposite side, the left remains lost in a campaign to free Lula at all costs, while rejecting any real discussion about combating graft. Pressure to protect the independence of enforcement institutions and to increase authorities’ accountability can only come from outside these extremes. Polarization will sustain a toxic environment with little room for common sense policies to protect the rule of law.