What is Brazil’s ‘Operation Car Wash’?

Is Operation Car Wash the world’s biggest corruption scandal? By Vanessa Baird
Operation Car Wash: Sergio Moro as Superman - a popular inflatable doll.
Sergio Moro as Superman - a popular inflatable doll.

Why the name?

Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) began in March 2014 as a small-scale probe into a gas service station in Brasilia being used to launder money. Police found that black-market money dealers were acting for a senior executive in Petrobras, the state oil company, and that the company had been deliberately overpaying contractors in exchange for a cut of up to five per cent on deals, which would be channelled into a secret slush fund.

How much is involved?

Petrobras admitted it had paid $2.1 billion in bribes. But the total value of graft involving several big companies will be much higher than that.

So who else is involved?

There’s Odebrecht, a giant construction firm used by Petrobras, which has admitted it spent at least $3.3 billion bribing political parties in Brazil. It did the same in other countries – Peru, Chile, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. Former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht has been sentenced to 19 years in prison. The Brazilian state development bank (BNDES) is also involved.

Any other big companies?

There’s OAS, another large construction conglomerate, and JBS, the world’s biggest meat packer. JBS co-owner Joesley Batista has been spilling the beans about how he made secret payments to major Brazilian parties and individuals.

How many political figures are involved?

Nearly 100 politicians and officials have been convicted so far. Four previous presidents and at least 71 parliamentarians are facing Car Wash investigators. At the same time, a total of 238 members of both houses are being investigated by the Supreme Federal Court, the majority in relation to criminal corruption allegations.

How many parliamentarians are there in total?


Sounds crazy! Are you sure the Car Wash isn’t out of control?

Many politicians think so – but then they would, wouldn’t they? The Workers’ Party is convinced Car Wash is biased against them. Politicians on all sides have been complaining about the investigators’ methods, some of which are of dubious legality and in breach of human rights. Many lawyers agree.

How’s that?

The investigators (police and judges) stage unnecessarily dramatic arrests, tipping off the media, and impose lengthy preventative detentions, holding suspects until they confess. Their powers have been likened to those of the Spanish Inquisition. Often they enter into questionable plea bargains and their leader, Sérgio Moro, has had to apologize for leaking confidential information.

So how do they get away with it?

They have high public approval – unlike the politicians! Many of them are young and they come across as crusaders. They enjoy good relations with the media, especially the conservative O Globo conglomerate, and US-educated Moro is a bit of a star. Supporters say that the Car Wash judges need exceptional powers to be effective in tackling such endemic corruption perpetrated by powerful people.

Where will it all end?


Sources include: UOL, 2017/07/25; The Guardian 2017/06/01