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An untimely death shines a light on one of the world's biggest corruption scandals | The World Weekly

When Teori Zavascki stepped into a twin-engine jet in Sao Paulo on Thursday last week at around 1pm local time his destination was the idyllic colonial town of Paraty, on the Costa Verde. Little could he have known that this holiday weekend would become the latest twist in the largest bribery case in Brazilian history, which is making waves far beyond its borders. But when the small aircraft plunged into the Atlantic just three kilometres short of the landing strip, killing the 68-year-old Supreme Court judge along with three more passengers and the pilot, that is exactly what happened.

Mr. Zavascki was the only judge with the power and documentation to prosecute Brazil’s politicians over the ‘Lava Jato’ (Car Wash) investigation into a vast corruption scandal. “It is childish to think that criminals of the worst kind will decide to simply submit to the law,” his son, Francisco Prehn, wrote on Facebook last May. “If something happens to someone in my family, you know where to look.”

Even before Mr. Zavascki’s death was confirmed, conspiracy theories had taken over social media and the hashtag ‘House of Cards’ (a US thriller about murderously unscrupulous politicians) had started to trend. “Accident or crime?” asked Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s most influential newspapers. Preliminary analysis found the plane had not been brought down by a mechanical fault; conditions, on the other hand, were stormy.

Mr. Zavascki was expected to make public the contents of 77 plea-bargain agreements with Odebrecht, South America’s biggest construction conglomerate, by the start of February. The exhaustive, time-consuming piece of work, which took two years to compile, was set to unveil bribery and the diversion of public funds on an enormous scale. It was expected to leave few Brazilian politicians and business personalities untainted, including President Michel Temer.

Operation Car Wash was initially uncovered in March 2014, when an unknown judge from Curitiba, Sergio Moro, started to investigate a complex scheme of bribes between politicians and Odebrecht executives in exchange for contracts with the state oil company Petrobras. The case has already led to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff - Mr. Temer’s predecessor - since she was chairman of Petrobras between 2003 and 2010. Eighty-one people have been convicted and Mr. Zavascki’s papers would have added many more names to the list of accused.

“It’s carnage,” Senator Romero Jucá told businessman Sérgio Machado in a private conversation released this week by the Brazilian media. In the audio, they also discussed the impossibility of finding political links to coerce Mr. Zavascki.

At the very least, the judge’s sudden death is going to delay the investigation. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has urged Brazil to conduct an “especially careful and timely investigation”.

Opening Pandora’s box

But ‘Lava Jato’ may only be the tip of the iceberg. The list of public construction projects linked to Odebrecht in Latin America is endless: subway lines in Peru and Venezuela, a $1 billion port in Cuba, power dams in Panama, tramways in Colombia and the Olympic venues in Brazil, to name only a few. Beyond the continent, it built one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Africa.

Lula and Chávez inaugurate a bridge built by Odebrecht in China in November 2006

The company has been a proud ambassador for Brazilian foreign policy and their executives were received as important personalities all around the continent.

But the Petrobras investigations put an end to this golden era. So far, Odebrecht has been accused of delivering $439m to politicians, political parties and officials in at least 11 countries beyond Brazil, including Argentina, Peru, Dominican Republic, Panama, and Angola, amongst others.

Recent weeks saw several investigations into high-profile suspects, including former Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, a former Colombian deputy minister and the current head of the Argentine intelligence agency, a close friend of President Mauricio Macri.

Further highlighting the case’s international dimensions, Odebrecht in December 2016 reached a settlement with the US Justice Department to pay $3.5bn in return for ending bribery investigations in the US, Switzerland and Brazil. That is the highest fine ever imposed for bribery. In addition, CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, the grandson of the founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison in Brazil.

Until the whole truth comes out, few Latin American politicians are above suspicion. This will inevitably keep feeding speculation, conspiracy theories and general distrust among citizens.

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