Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Brazil’s Corruption Graveyard

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At a secondhand bookstore in Brazil, I recently found an old copy of Graham Greene’s novella-turned-screenplay “The Third Man.” Set in the shadowy streets and sewers of post-World War II Vienna, a police investigation reveals that the leader of a crime ring has faked his death to evade police. A coffin is exhumed, a body is found missing, and an iconic sewer chase scene ensues for Orson Welles in the 1949 noir film.

I could have opened up a local newspaper to read a similar tale unfolding.

A suspected ringleader in Brazil’s largest corruption investigation was recently alleged to have faked his death in 2010 to escape prosecution, and on May 20, a congressional committee ordered for his coffin in the city of Londrina, in southern Brazil, to be dug up and for a DNA test to be conducted on the corpse. Former congressman José Janene was thought to have died in a hospital of heart disease in 2010, but now rumors swirled that he was living in Central America with a $185 million Luxembourg bank account.

Digging up corpses could be a sign that Brazil’s corruption investigators will leave no stone (or gravestone) unturned, or that the unfolding scandal at Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) has devolved into a witch-hunt. In either case, the development showed the extent to which officials need to distance themselves from a scandal that has cost Petrobras at least 6.2 billion reais ($2.1 billion) in graft-related losses, implicated dozens of major domestic and multinational firms, and pushed President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity to record lows.

“The prosecutors are convinced of their duty to combat all illegality,” Christian Lohbauer, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, told Americas Quarterly. “Once the investigation started, we never know where and when it would stop.”

The scandal, known as Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) because of where some of the money laundering happened, has yielded surprisingly high-profile takedowns of major Brazilian firms and political figures, earning lead prosecutors the ominous moniker of cavaleiros do apocalipse (“horsemen of the apocalypse”) and highlighting the zero-tolerance climate in Brazil right now. When the FIFA scandal burst into the spotlight last week, with the U.S. Department of Justice charging 14 FIFA officials—including two Brazilians—in a globe-trotting money-laundering conspiracy, Brazil’s Congress and Justice Ministry were quick to launch their own bribery inquiries into Brazil’s soccer league.

Rousseff, who in March signed into law a much-delayed anti-corruption bill, is applauding the investigations.

“It can only benefit Brazil,” she said on May 27 following the FIFA arrests. “And I think that if they have to investigate, investigate all cups, all activities. That goes for everything, from Operação Lava Jato to this.”

The charge to “investigate all activities” apparently also means finding out if anyone pulled a “Third Man” and faked their own death—which the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal described as a “macabre” and “bizarre” turn in the Petrobras case. Janene had also been implicated in Brazil’s second-biggest graft case, known as the Mensalão (“big monthly payment”), in which congressmen were paid to vote with the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). Considered a rare example of white collar justice here, that case saw 12 people sentenced to prison in 2013, although the list didn’t include Janene because his funeral had been held three years earlier.

Or had Janene really fled to Central America? It wouldn’t have been a bad choice of destination: Brasília lacks extradition agreements with any Central American nation except Mexico (here’s a full list of treaties), making it all the more difficult for authorities to reel someone home from there. Extradition is onerous even when a treaty is in place, as underscored now with Brasília’s fight to repatriate Henrique Pizzolato, also accused in the Mensalão, who fled Brazil using the passport of his dead brother.

That said, it must be a dire situation to fake your death and flee your home, family and country—especially in a nation such as Brazil, where white collar crime often goes unpunished. The World Justice Project ranks Brazil 46th among all countries in terms of rule of law, behind Bulgaria. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks Brazil as 11th-worst in its global impunity index. Transparency International ranks Brazil 69th in its corruption perceptions index, behind South Africa and Kuwait. Brazilian politicians have traditionally given little concern to their nation’s short arm of justice.

Though the Operação Lava Jato corruption investigation was threatening to go all the way to the graveyard, Janene’s exhumation was halted while the congressional committee reviewed documents certifying the death. On May 26, the Muslim Society of Londrina provided adequate proof to the committee that Janene had been buried according to Islamic rules. The exhumation idea was dropped.

It all might sound over-the-top, but Janene would not have been the first Lava Jato suspect to fake his own death. A former Ceará businessman linked to Lava Jato who allegedly died in a mugging is now suspected to be an “an underworld figure” operating between Europe and Brazil, according to the Financial Times. Add that guy to the Wikipedia page on pseudocide and its practitioners.

“All kinds of tricks and maneuvers are possible,” said University of São Paulo’s Professor Lohbauer, reflecting another shocking part of the whole exhumation ordeal: that it came as no shock to Brazilians, who have long endured corruption as an accepted part of life.

“This is Brazil,” shrugged Ludel Vieira Lessa, a retired engineer in Belo Horizonte, speaking to me recently after reading his morning newspapers. “Anything is possible.”

Tags: Brazil, corruption, Petrobras
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