Alberto Youssef, one of the main defendants in the "Car Wash" case

The massive corruption scandal rocking Brazil is generating new controversy over the use of plea bargains, which prosecutors claim have proven indispensable in taking down an expansive criminal network, while critics argue the deals allow offenders to skirt justice.

Several individuals convicted in connection with "Operation Car Wash" have been granted dramatic reductions in prison time by cooperating with Brazilian authorities, Folha de São Paulo reported. In total, Folha's analysis showed that thirteen defendants were able to reduce the collective prison time they would have served from more than 283 years to less than seven.

The "Car Wash" scheme involved executives at the state-run oil company Petrobras issuing inflated construction contracts in exchange for bribes and kickbacks, some of which were laundered and funneled into political campaigns. According to Folha, a number of the ringleaders of the operation were able to reduce their sentences from decades in prison to just a few years, while others will serve no time in exchange for the information they provided.

One of the most prominent examples is Alberto Youssef, who laundered funds for participants in the scheme. Originally facing up to 30 years in prison, Youssef reduced his sentence to just three years by providing information on other suspects.

The fallout from the "Car Wash" scandal has ensnared former top executives at Petrobras, as well as political power brokers. And, as InSight Crime previously reported, it has even threatened to implicate Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who served as chairwoman of the oil company during the time when investigators say much of the corruption took place.

InSight Crime

A federal prosecutor on the "Car Wash" task force, Deltan Dallagnol, defended the use of plea bargains in comments to Folha. "The collaborations are made to achieve evidence in relation to several other people, including criminals with more relevant roles in the crime, and to recover diverted money," he said, adding that 40 such agreements had yielded charges against 179 other suspects.

On the other hand, Antônio Cláudio Mariz de Oliveira, the former attorney of one of the defendants who took a plea deal, called the practice "an institution of dubious legality and legitimacy." Mariz argued that plea bargains give "absolute credibility to the word of the informer, who is actually informing purely and simply to avoid prison."

Both lawyers have a point.

In other corruption cases involving elites in Latin America, defendants have tended to close ranks and protect one another by staying silent. But in the case of the "Car Wash" investigations, the incentive of reduced prison time in exchange for information has helped prosecutors build cases against a vast network of corrupt businesspeople and politicians.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

At the same time, these reductions can be taken too far. The sizeable decrease -- and in some cases elimination -- of prison time for high-profile defendants can lead to the impression that information can buy impunity for serious crimes. The US justice system, which makes extensive use of plea bargains in organized crime cases, has come under criticism for similar reasons.

The results of plea deals don't always satisfy public clamor for justice, but in some cases, like the "Car Wash" scandal, they can help dismantle powerful criminal networks. And that process can lead to broader shifts in societal attitudes toward corruption, as has been seen in Guatemala where the revelation of a customs fraud scheme sparked a mass anti-corruption movement that helped oust one president before sweeping another into power.

In Brazil, where recent surveys show citizens rank corruption at the top of the list of their country's problems, the "Car Wash" scandal could prove to be a similar turning point.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy. Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...