Demonstrators take part in a protest in support of Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 2017. 
Ricardo Moraes / REUTERS

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

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