In Brazil, a Wave of Corruption Cases

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007

BRASILIA -- The paper trail ends in an unmarked office in Brazil's federal police headquarters, where duffel bags full of confiscated files are heaped on the floor, waiting to be opened and analyzed.

The bags have been piling up in recent months, byproducts of the sensationally brazen corruption scandals that have been multiplying, one after the other. The parade of disgraced public figures under investigation seems endless -- from government ministers to top lawmakers to members of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's family.

Meanwhile, Lula's reputation floats above the muck, rising with public opinion polls that indicate about two-thirds of Brazilians are happy with him. Close allies fall around him, but the president is protected by an increasingly popular belief: The contents of those duffel bags -- and all the dirty deals they have revealed -- might have remained unexamined if it weren't for Lula.

"People are not stupid -- they know corruption has always occurred in Brazil, and it's just that more of it is being uncovered now," said Jorge Hage, the government's auditor general. "For the first time in Brazilian history, we have a systematic effort to fight it."

Since Lula took office in 2003, the staffs of both the auditor general's office and the federal police -- the two agencies that have uncovered most of the scandals -- have grown by 50 percent.

Parts of the federal budgeting process have become more transparent, thanks in part to a Web site with detailed information about more than $1.5 trillion in federal contracts. Using such tools, Brazilians filed 6,214 allegations of wrongdoing last year, and the auditor's office analyzed 3,227 of them. A total of 1,224 government workers have been fired as a result of such investigations since 2003, according to the auditor general's office.

Some government critics have questioned whether the firings and shaming of public officials will make a lasting difference or simply allow different people to practice the same corruption. It's practically impossible to measure whether the increasing number of investigations is reducing the amount of corruption, but World Bank surveys show Brazilians don't think so: Most people perceive that there is more corruption in government now than there was 10 years ago, according to the bank's Governance 2007 report.

"I hear very frequently -- and it is said in a negative way about our work -- that it has been hard to find people now who want to accept a public job, especially one with budgetary responsibility," Hage said, sitting in front of a map covered with pushpins that mark each of the 1,223 municipalities his office has audited. "It has become a very high-risk job in Brazil."

The federal police have been leading the recent sting operations. Getulio Bezerra Santos, head of the federal police's organized crime unit, said his department now operates under a "capitalistic" reward system: The more corruption they uncover, the more resources they get. That creates incentives to target officials who control a lot of money, he said.

Bezerra Santos added that since Sept. 11, 2001, the amount of international pressure to fight terrorism has lessened the focus on drug-related crimes, freeing some police divisions to concentrate more on crimes against the public sector.

"Before, the police just went to the slums and kicked in doors, and now, we're taking panoramic elevators to air-conditioned offices," he said.

The high-profile scandals, each with a headline-ready nickname, have consistently dominated front pages in the past year. Examples include:

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company