When former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) gave himself up to the police last April to start serving a 12-year-long sentence on corruption charges, many thought business as usual in Brazil was finally over. Arresting any former president would be a huge transformation in a country renowned for a culture of political impunity, but Lula was of a different order. After serving as president for eight years (2003–10), he had left office with sky-high approval rates of 80 percent and had managed to get Dilma Rousseff anointed as his successor. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama called him “the most popular politician on earth.” For millions of Brazilians, Lula embodied the dream of a more prosperous life. For many, his imprisonment showed that Brazil had finally begun to tackle its problems of endemic corruption in politics.
Unfortunately, the outcome of Brazil’s biggest political crisis since its transition to democracy three decades ago is far from preordained. Code-named Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), the anticorruption probe started in 2014 by following the thread of black-market money dealers who used gas stations and car washes to launder illegal funds. Investigators eventually discovered that those same criminals laundered money for key executives at the state-owned oil giant Petrobras who were involved in deals with numerous elected officials going all the way to the presidential palace. They found that overpayments on contracts issued by the Brazilian government were siphoned into a secret slush fund that funneled the money to political parties and well-connected business conglomerates. Billions of dollars in taxpayer money funded election campaigns illegally and fueled a scheme through which private interests could purchase political favors in all three branches of government. Conglomerates and party officials involved in the scheme bribed officials in 12 other countries in Latin America and Africa and stashed their illegal funds in Europe and the United States.
The Operation Car Wash team includes a few dozen magistrates, prosecutors, and investigators in the city of
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