Brazil's FBI takes on corrupt bigwigs

Federal police have launched several raids in recent weeks, resulting in dozens of high-profile arrests.

Brazil's Federal Police are not known for having a gentle approach, and the code names given to some of their high-profile operations confirm their hard-core tactics.

Operations Bloodsuckers, Locust, Gladiator, and Razor have all seen agents storm buildings recently and emerge with men in handcuffs.

The anti-graft operations have resulted in dozens of high-profile arrests, marking a potentially new phase in Brazil's seemingly endless fight against graft.

For the first time in recent history the Federal Police and other watchdog bodies like the public prosecutor's office and the federal accounting court are taking serious aim at corruption, civil rights experts say.

The often heavy-handed Federal Police – a body akin to the US's Federal Bureau of Investigation – are a long way from perfect, but they are more diligent and independent than they once were, experts say. And now they are providing some hope that the corruption that blights Brazilian society is beatable.

"These institutions are the ones that are contributing," says Ricardo Ismael, a lecturer in public policy at the Catholic Pontificate University in Rio de Janeiro. "If it wasn't for them, we would be even further behind in identifying irregularities."

The irregularities are legion, as recent raids have shown.

In Operation Check Mate this month, police questioned President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's brother about suspicions that he used his influence to try to benefit members of a contraband gang that smuggled electronic components into Brazil for use in illegal gambling machines. Another 87 people were detained in the raids and accused of crimes ranging from tax evasion to extortion.

Last month, in Operation Razor, Federal Police arrested nearly 50 politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen, and dismantled what they say was a complicated kickbacks scheme tied to public-works projects. Under the scheme, a construction company convinced legislators to solicit infrastructure projects for their states or municipalities in return for a fat gratuity. In some cases, the projects were never carried out; in others they were incomplete. Energy Minister Silas Rondeau resigned in the wake of the operation, which has raised concerns over Lula's four-year, $250 billion plan of investment in roads.

Brazil's costly struggle with graft

Such tales are hardly new in Brazil, a country where successful politicians have long been celebrated with the phrase, "Rouba mas faz," meaning, "He steals, but he gets things done."

Inflated public-works projects and government purchases cost the state between $13 billion and $20 billion each year, according to a recent government report.

The increasingly aggressive approach of the Federal Police – combined with the diligent efforts of prosecutors – are still only small steps on the road to a more just society.

Although more than 5,000 people have been detained in Federal Police raids over the last five years, only a tiny fraction of them were actually tried and sentenced. All 48 people arrested in Operation Razor have been released, according to a Federal Police spokesman.

Those numbers discourage jurists, who say the lack of follow-through on prosecuting high-level suspects perpetuates the sense of impunity as well as the widespread belief that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, a belief strengthened by a law stating that inmates with a university degree need not share cells with less-educated prisoners.

On the flip side, the lack of convictions leaves the Federal Police open to accusations that they are abusing their power by arresting so many. The recent spate of raids was criticized by politicians who fear persecution by influential rivals, and they were classed as "legal terrorism" by a leading group of judges.

Perhaps with that in mind, the justice ministry last week created a commission designed to examine the agency's recent performance and possibly curb its powers to arrest suspects.

Recent raids are popular

Many people, however, have welcomed the agency's vigorous action as a refreshing sign that things are changing. Even the president, after backing his brother's efforts to be exonerated of the accusations, lauded the Federal Police for "carrying out an exemplary role."

Anticorruption campaigners are now watching to see if other governmental bodies follow the Federal Police agency's lead.

Early signs are not good, they say, especially in the country's notoriously corrupt Congress. One bill under consideration would cut to two days from five days the time period allowed for contesting the results of government contracts. That would make it harder for anyone suspecting wrongdoing to protest.

Another bill would make it easier for deputies to tack pork-barrel projects onto laws. And a constitutional amendment that passed the committee stage in the lower house earlier this month gives the government more leeway to default on debt, thus increasing the chance of under-the-table deals being made between creditors and authorities.

"These things are putting citizens at the mercy of the government and they create an imbalance of power," says Eduardo Capobianco, president of the Brazilian chapter of the antigraft watchdog Transparency International. "They create conditions for all kinds of corruption. Combating corruption implies restricting those in power."

In Brazil, those restrictions, where they exist, are often ignored. Which means that the onus will remain on the police and the review bodies.

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