SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil’s federal police have announced that they are shutting down the task force behind Operation Car Wash, a behemoth corruption probe that has sent dozens of top politicians and business executives to jail.
The task force, which has been operating as an independent unit, will be absorbed into a larger anti-corruption division. Federal police shrugged off the move as bureaucratic reshuffling, but critics labeled the decision an attempt to undermine an investigation that is redefining Brazil’s political landscape.
In three years, Operation Car Wash ballooned from a money-laundering probe focused on a Brasilia gas station into the country’s biggest corruption investigation. Through plea deals, the task force was able to trace bribery and corruption to the highest echelons of government. Today, the probe threatens to topple the country’s president, Michel Temer, who is being investigated along with a third of the members of Brazil’s senate, dozens of representatives in its house and more than half of the president’s cabinet.
The decision is the latest blow to the task force, which saw its budget halved in May. Prosecutors working on the cases say the move will limit the scope of investigations the task force is able to take on.
“The federal police’s Car Wash task force, drastically shrunk by the current government, is not large enough to meet its demands,” prosecutors said in a statement.
Several senators criticized the action and questioned the motives behind it. “This is a deliberate attempt at obstruction of justice by a president who is implicated in the Car Wash investigation,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, an opposition senator. He called the decision “morally offensive.”
The federal police argued that the new setup, announced Thursday, allows for greater collaboration among agents of different departments and said investigators would not see their workload increase. In a statement, the department “reaffirmed the public commitment to combat corruption.”
Operation Car Wash has been lauded by international anti-corruption organizations as ushering in a more transparent era in Brazilian politics. The task force was awarded Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Award last year, for convictions “including high level politicians and business executives previously considered untouchable.”
The task force has been praised for moving swiftly and upending an entrenched system of bribery that plagued Brazil for decades. Images of the task force’s officers escorting Brazil’s most powerful people in handcuffs from their homes at dawn stunned Brazilians.
Critics worry that integrating the task force with the wider department will create more paperwork and slow down investigators. The federal police union said that the move meant the task force would lose its ability to act nimbly.
“You shouldn’t mess with a winning team,” the union said in a statement.
The investigation has widespread public support, which has largely shielded it from government interference. A whopping 96 percent of Brazilians agreed that the investigation should continue “whatever the costs,” according to a poll conducted in December.
The decision to demobilize the task force comes weeks after the president was accused of accepting $150,000 in bribes from a meat-company magnate who was under investigation. Temer, who denies wrongdoing, faces obstruction of justice charges. Congress must decide whether to send him to trial in the Supreme Court.
After a tape surfaced that appeared to implicate Temer in the probe in May, the president abruptly replaced the minister of justice, who oversees the investigation, with Torquanto Jardim, a close political ally. The move drew criticism from prosecutors and investigators who worried that it was an attempt to stifle the probe. After his swearing-in ceremony, Jardim assured Brazilians that the probe would not be politicized.
But with Temer’s administration hanging by a thread and the president finding himself at the mercy of politicians who are under investigation themselves, the decision to shut down the task force has many Brazilians concerned.
“The timing makes it look like a retaliation,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a campaign strategist in Brasilia. “Even if it is a mere administrative decision, the announcement is turning heads because it is a change to a system that has worked very well in the last few years — so well that it has even implicated the president.”