Brazil’s largest-ever corruption probe, known as the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, exposed a web of graft across Latin America and beyond, rocking the political and economic establishment in more than a dozen countries.
What began in 2014 as a money-laundering investigation soon unearthed corruption at the highest levels of Brazil’s government and at companies including state-owned oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro (Petrobras) and construction giant Odebrecht, now called Novonor, which offered bribes in exchange for contracts in Brazil and abroad. Lava Jato resulted in nearly 280 convictions, returned about $800 million to Brazilian state coffers, and sparked offshoot investigations around the world. Forty-one countries have formally asked Brazilian authorities for legal cooperation, and multiple former and current heads of state, most notably in Brazil and Peru, have been implicated.
Two presidents and several ministers have been charged. Meanwhile, the two sons of President Ricardo Martinelli face extradition from Guatemala to the United States.
Nonetheless, Brazil shuttered the task force behind Lava Jato in February 2021, with President Jair Bolsonaro arguing that graft within the government had been eradicated. (Some analysts contend that the real reason is the embattled Brazilian president feared he or his family members could be imprisoned.)
Bolsonaro isn’t the only one to criticize the probe, which has been undermined by allegations of political motivation. In 2019, leaked messages indicated Sergio Moro—the primary judge for Lava Jato cases and who later became Brazil’s justice minister—colluded with prosecutors. Brazil’s Supreme Court recently annulled former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s convictions and ruled that Moro exhibited bias in Lula’s case. The annulments clear the highly popular Lula to seek another presidential term; however, they do not affirm his innocence, and he could face trial in other courts.
Experts say Lava Jato’s downfall deals a blow to anticorruption efforts across Latin America. To give a sense of its unprecedented breadth, here are some of the major political and business leaders implicated in, investigated for, or imprisoned as a result of Lava Jato and related probes.