Brazil Awash in Corruption and Violence

(CN) — In a country where gangs and police often battle in the streets and human rights workers and environmentalists are routinely gunned down, an investigation of the assassination of a prominent leftist politician in 2018 has focused on Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, according to the country’s top broadcaster, Jornal Nacional.

In response, Bolsonaro has used social media to call his critics “putrid” and “immoral.” From a hotel room in Saudi Arabia he tweeted: “You rascals, you scumbags!, this will not stick!” after learning of that a TV report linked him to the murder of Marielle Franco, his most severe critic on the City Council of Río de Janeiro.

The investigation was stonewalled until an investigation of the investigation allegedly disclosed a cover-up of people close to the president, including Bolsonaro himself and his son, Flávio. The Independent newspaper reported that the man accused of killing Marielle Franco met with others at Bolsonaro’s seaside compound hours before the assassination.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (AP file photo)

This is only one of the problems facing Brazil’s first family. Prosecutors in Río de Janeiro accuse former senator Flávio Bolsonaro of diverting public funds to buy two luxury properties in Río’s tony Copacabana neighborhood and to buy a chocolate store franchise, according to Reuters.

Last Wednesday police raided 24 properties belonging to Flávio’s former senate staff and the family of the president’s ex-wife. Bolsonaro campaigned by promising that he would fight organized crime, yet now numerous independent reports link him and his son with Río’s mafia and its police-affiliated death squads.

Brazil has been consumed by corruption scandals for years. More than half of the country’s 81 senators have been accused of corruption. (Each Brazilian state elects three senators, and three more are elected from the capital district.) Hundreds of politicians and corporate executives have been imprisoned in the “Carwash” scandal, involving the giant Brazilian construction company Odebrecht and the state-owned petroleum company Petrobras. Dozens of companies have pleaded guilty to paying bribes to get contracts with the oil giant.

Odebrecht is the largest construction company in Latin America. At its peak in 2010 it had 180,000 employees in 21 countries. In 2016, 87 of the company’s executives admitted to bribery charges in a dramatic plea deal with U.S. and Swiss authorities and paid the largest fine in Brazilian history, $2.6 billion. Ten years earlier, the company created an entire division — the Division of Structured Operations — primarily to handle the bribery payments.

In exchange, the 87 were given light prison sentences for cooperating with prosecutors. Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, however, the grandson of the company’s founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison. The company admitted bribing politicians in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.

The massive scandal known as Carwash (the first bribes were paid at a carwash in Río) also resulted in Brazil’s former President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva being tried and convicted of corruption and imprisoned.

During Lula’s presidency from 2003 to 2010, Brazil saw an extraordinary period of economic growth and reduction of poverty. Lula, still wildly popular in parts of the county, was released from prison recently along with 5,000 other prisoners after the supreme court ruled they could remain free until all appeals were exhausted.

Further complicating the problems facing President Bolsonaro are recent revelations by the investigative website The Intercept. Tapes of conversations appeared to confirm that the controversial judge in the Carwash cases had colluded with prosecutors during the corruption cases.

Bolsonaro appointed that judge, Sergio Moro, as his justice minister. It was Moro who sent Lula to prison, thereby eliminating him from the presidential race in 2017, a race he was favored to win.

Meanwhile, the violence in Brazil goes unabated. In a Sunday Page 1 exposé, The New York Times reported that police-linked death squads killed an average of 17 people every day last year, before Bolsonaro took office.

(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)

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