Brazil's 'corruption trial of the century' expected to hurt ruling coalition
Politicians stand accused of involvement in illegal vote-buying scandal
Among the accused is Jose Dirceu, chief of staff of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Photograph: Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images
In what has been billed as Brazil's "trial of the century", the supreme court on Thursday started to hear the case of 38 prominent defendants – including former ministers, politicians, bankers and businessmen – who are implicated in a vote-buying case that first hit the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2005.
The Mensalão (big monthly payment) scandal, as it is commonly known, saw millions of dollars siphoned from public funds to pay off politicians and buy support for the coalition. Among the accused is Jose Dirceau, Lula's chief of staff.
The attorney general, Roberto Gurgel, has said it was "the most daring and outrageous corruption scheme and embezzlement of public funds ever seen in Brazil".
Lula is not in the dock, but he has apologised on behalf of the Workers Party, now led by President Dilma Rousseff, and the case looks likely to hurt the coalition in this autumn's municipal elections. Rousseff seems unlikely to be directly affected as she has fired ministers who have been implicated in scandals.
Corruption and murder are nothing new in Brazil, but the prominence of the case has prompted some to hope an endemic problem is now being addressed.
"For the first time, corruption is being honestly combated," said Gilson Caroni Filho, a sociologist at the Hélio Alonso Institute, Rio de Janeiro. "The Brazilian government has been moving forward meaningfully. But we must not have illusions, changes will be molecular and the reaction of those who are targeted will be strong."
Others warn that without decisive action, the corruption cases may simply increase. "The main impact is still coming. Brazilians always expect that episodes like this are investigated and judged carefully. But there is a tradition in the political class to protect one another," said João Trajano, a political scientist at Rio State University.
Few analysts expect change in the short term. Noéli Correia de Melo Sobrinho, a political scientist, said the main difference was in transparency. An old, hidden problem is coming the surface, but that does not necessarily mean it will be dealt with "There is a bigger freedom now to talk about these issues," he said. "I believe Dilma's government has the will to fight corruption, but that would go against lots of powerful people. Sometimes that's the reason why corruption can't be fought: it's already in the system."
The Mensalão scandal is not the only big corruption case to hit the headlines in recent weeks, with another raising questions over the probity of the very organisations supposed to be investigating crime.
Police investigator Wilton Tapajós Macedo was killed last month while watering the flowers on his parents' grave. At close range, two bullets were enough. One went through the temple, the other through the throat.
As his body lay on the ground near where he would later be buried, an undertaker witnessed two killers fleeing the scene. They left behind not just a corpse but a fear that the battle against corruption in Brazil may be entering a dangerous new phase as rival law enforcement agencies fight one another.
Tapajós was investigating the head of an illegal gambling cartel, Carlinos Cachoeira – also known as Charlie Waterfall – and his sprawling web of influence.
The corruption scandal has toppled a senator, disrupted renovation of stadiums for the World Cup and prompted the resignations of judges and prosecutors who said they were threatened and obstructed by police.
No one has been arrested in connection with the killing and detectives stress that the motive remains unclear, but the public prosecutor, Daniel de Resende Salgado, said military police – who operate on a regional rather than national level – had obstructed Tapajós and other federal agents as they attempted to look into the gambling activities run by Cachoeira during the investigation known as Operation Monte Carlo.
"During fieldwork, Tapajós was once intercepted by a military police officer, who may have been protecting the gamblers," Salgado said. "We are aware of potential infiltration by criminal groups in government sectors. It is an even greater concern when they infiltrate public security organisations. If people who are supposed to fight crime associate with it, how can others react? Society and government are very vulnerable when that happens."
This followed the resignation from the case by a judge, Paulo Augusto Moreva Lina, who said his family had been threatened by police in Goiás — the regional base of Cachoeira's operation. A public prosecutor, Léa Batista de Souza, also quit after receiving a message saying: "Bitch, we will get you."
"I can't affirm Cachoeira ordered these threats, but I am sure these emails were because of the discomfort that Monte Carlo operation caused," de Souza told the Guardian. "The operation shows that organised crime has infiltrated the state, especially public security."
The effort to intimidate investigators – and the apparent involvement of military police – has prompted calls for Brazil's justice ministry to declare an emergency. But it also shows that the inquiry has started to hurt some powerful vested interests.
A vast wire-tapping operation has revealed Cachoeira's close ties to several influential politicians and businessmen. Demóstenes Torres – who had a reputation as one of Brazil's cleanest politicians until this case – was only the second senator to be impeached since the dictatorship ended in 1985 after claims he took $1.7m (£1.1m) from Cachoeira.
Similarly shady ties also hit one of the country's biggest construction firms, Delta – which was expelled from a project to renovate the Maracanã stadium for the 2014 World Cup. With Cachoeira now on trial, more cases are expected.