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Opinion | Operation Car Wash Was No Magic Bullet

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no effective way to combat corruption. Indeed, there’s much we can learn from the Brazilian experience.

During Mr. da Silva’s administrations, the Brazilian justice system underwent a profound reform process that increased funding and resources, created specific jurisdictions to fight money laundering, and increased interagency cooperation to follow the money and hunt down white-collar criminals.

Mr. Moro and the members of the investigation were empowered to act decisively and get results; this bothered Mr. Bolsonaro, who has done everything possible to reverse these policies. The problem is that Mr. Moro and the prosecutors perverted these institutional advances — including their independence from public power — by transforming a simple temporary task force into an entity above the law at the service of a political objective, initially relying on the support of the higher courts.

Mr. Moro, who resigned from his ministerial position in April 2020, made clear during his stint in the magistracy and the executive that like his former boss, he believes that democracy and the rule of law can be set aside in the name of the fight against corruption. And even that statement can be disputed now that Mr. Moro, in a clear conflict of interest, works for a law firm hired by Odebrecht.

To put an end to the promiscuous relationship between money and politics — the underlying problem revealed by the operation, and its main accomplishment — it is not enough to prosecute and imprison. Companies were bankrupted, and the country was put in turmoil, but even after hundreds of arrests, corruption has not abated.

Brazilian democracy is in danger. To change this, it is necessary to go beyond prosecution and institute true political reform that can help address the root of the problem by attacking the illicit financing of political campaigns. It is also necessary to introduce more effective tools of accountability in the judiciary, in order to avoid cases like Operation Car Wash, which had institutional protection even after it became clear that wrongdoing had been committed since the early stages of the investigation.

Operation Car Wash is over, but its story has yet to be fully told. For Brazil to face its multiple crises, to truly attack corruption and overcome this dystopia, there must be a critical reassessment of the investigation.

Gaspard Estrada (@Gaspard_Estrada) is the executive director of the Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean at Sciences Po in Paris. This essay was translated by Erin Goodman from the Spanish.

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