The investigation has ensnared many of the country’s elite, threatens to bring down president Michel Temer and is expanding to other Latin American countries.
Nearly three years after the first arrests in March 2014, the so-called Car Wash investigation has no end in sight, said Deltan Dallagnol, co-ordinator of the task force in the state of Parana, where the operations began and are still largely centred under the jurisdiction of Judge Sergio Moro. “I would say that the new plea agreements could allow the Car Wash operation to double its size in the future,” Mr Dallagnol said, declining to go into detail because the cases were ongoing.
What started as an investigation into money-laundering has morphed into a corruption scandal so large that it has shocked Brazilians long accustomed to graft in politics.
Investigators say the equivalent of more than £1.59 billion in bribes were paid out in a kickback scheme that was centred at state oil company Petrobras and included major construction companies like Odebrecht. In the last few years, dozens of politicians and top businessmen have been convicted and jailed, and many more are facing charges.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Dallagnol said the investigation was “at risk” because of forces trying to snuff it out. He said the pressures were increasing as the number “of powerful people caught up in it grows by the day”.
Mr Dallagnol said the loss of Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing a large part of the investigation and died in a plane crash last week, was a huge blow but ultimately would not derail the many cases in progress.
He said that while many believed the investigation was creating a “new Brazil”, its long-term impact depended on whether Latin America’s largest nation took measures to reform its political and judicial systems. He likened it to an ill patient who goes to the doctor and gets a diagnosis but does not act on the medical advice.
“Unfortunately, we are still at the diagnostic stage,” said Mr Dallagnol, who said the Car Wash investigation was succeeding thanks to a four-pronged strategy: plea bargains that lead to new revelations, operational “phases” that build on each other, close co-operation between justice and legal officials, and a transparent communication strategy that includes divulging details of cases once arrests are made.
To many Brazilians, fed up with corruption and their political leaders, Judge Moro and Mr Dallagnol are heroes, a designation that Mr Dallagnol flatly rejects. “We are just doing our jobs,” he said.
The investigation has become so large that it is expanding to other states and judges. The arrest warrant issued on Thursday in Rio for Eike Batista – previously one of the world’s richest men – is a testament to how far the Car Wash investigation and its offshoots have gone.
Last year, prosecutors reached a plea agreement with dozens of executives of constructor Odebrecht.
The agreements, expected to be made public early this year, are believed to have damning evidence of bribes against top politicians in Brazil and possibly in other Latin American countries, including Argentina, Peru and Venezuela.
Michel Temer could be removed by the electoral court if Odebrecht plea bargains detail illegal campaign financing. Temer has denied wrongdoing.