Brazilian authorities have arrested a high-profile political strategist and public relations guru, in a case highlighting the difficulties of investigating Latin American government elites.
João Santana surrendered to Brazilian authorities after the Attorney General’s Office ordered his arrest for suspicion of influence peddling, Reuters reported.
Authorities reportedly say they have identified $7.5 million of bribe money belonging to Santana in several offshore accounts. Brazilian construction and engineering behemoth Odebrecht is suspected of paying $3 million of the alleged bribe money to secure contracts with Brazil state oil firm Petrobras. The Brazilian unit of Singapore oil rig firm Keppel is suspected of paying the remaining amount of alleged bribe money in Santana’s offshore accounts, according to an ABC International report.
Santana was a top strategist for the political campaigns of Brazil’s current President Dilma Rousseff and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He also previously served as the treasurer to Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT), as well as a campaign strategist to other current and former Latin American Presidents including Mauricio Funes in El Salvador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Danilo Medina in the Dominican Republic and José Domingo Arias in Panama, El País reported.
Santana’s arrest is part of a larger investigation into alleged collusion between companies and officials to secure inflated contracts with Petrobras. Dozens of executives and at least one PT senator have been arrested so far, according to Reuters.
InSight Crime Analysis
Often Latin American leaders can use legal measures, such as immunity clauses, or less-overt methods, such as leveraging their position and influence, to avoid criminal investigations. As a result, inquires are often launched after a powerful leader has left office or a shift in the political landscape has occurred.
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In this instance, Santana’s case is linked to the ongoing “Operation Carwash” scandal, which has ensnared former President Lula da Silva and may threaten current President Rousseff. However, investigations into Lula da Silva were launched after he left office, while Rousseff has been able to fend off an impeachment commission and be cleared of Petrobras-related charges, for now.
A similar example is a recently approved investigation into the alleged embezzlement of $7 billion at Venezuela state oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) while it was being administered by then-Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez (2004-2014). As in Brazil, the case is only now coming forward following a shift in political power: Venezuela’s first opposition-lead legislature.
But while taking advantage of opportune political moments may be the only way investigators can successfully look into government elites, it also invites accusations of political persecution, a claim both Lula da Silva and Rousseff have made repeatedly.