Brazil: Is international collaboration the solution in the fight against corruption?

By Carolina Lessa, Director, Government Affairs – Latin America, RELX

Successive corruption scandals coupled with a debilitating economic crisis have crippled and discredited Brazil. Every single day, there is news of yet another conviction, like the recent sentencing of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva[1]. However, there is a positive story to be told that the media hasn’t paid much attention to. It is the story of how nations have been partnering in the fight against corruption.

At an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, I heard Brazil’s chief prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, and US Acting Assistant Attorney General, Kenneth Blanco, discuss how Brazil and the United States have been working together on Operation Carwash. Both government officials stressed that without international collaboration, the investigations would not have been so agile or productive.

“Crimes modernise and evolve. Criminals don’t respect borders. If crimes are becoming globalised, prosecutorial bodies have to do the same. It’s because of multilateral cooperation that we’ve found perpetrators and assets regardless of borders,” said Rodrigo Janot[2]. Corruption and money laundering have no boundaries as we highlighted in our previous post on Odebrecht’s network of bribes in the region.

“Janot pointed out that the collaboration with Switzerland, back in 2014, breached the secrecy of more than 1,000 bank accounts and blocked more than US$1 billion in assets.”

To expedite the exchange of information in an international investigation, countries sign Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs). These agreements can be bilateral, multilateral and regional. With the increased number of transnational crimes, MLATs or Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) requests have become an essential part of an investigation. Brazil has treaties with 12 countries, including the United States[3]. Even though most of these treaties are with countries in the Americas, for Operation Carwash alone, the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office sent out 174 requests to 38 countries and received 89 requests from 28 countries[4]. Janot pointed out that the collaboration with Switzerland, back in 2014, breached the secrecy of more than 1,000 bank accounts and blocked more than US$1 billion in assets. As a result of that phase of the operation, approximately US$ 250 million from various countries were repatriated to Brazil.

This is proof of the internationalisation of corruption and money laundering.

Given the global nature of these crimes, governments are pressured to collaborate even more if they want to prosecute criminals. The exchange programs between Brazilian and US judges, prosecutors and investigators, have forged an important and constructive channel of communication and partnership between both countries. At Accuity, we believe this is essential for the advancement of an investigation of this type. Fulfilling numerous MLA requests can be onerous. And if there isn’t a well-established relationship between the agencies, it can cause additional and unnecessary friction. In lengthy investigations, like Carwash, delays can be critical, because illicit financial assets can be quickly moved around.

Over the past few years, the escalation of cross border payments and corruption investigations has driven companies to implement more robust compliance programmes, strengthening the existing Know Your Customer measures that are in place within their business.  International collaboration is vital to avoid duplication of effort, but also to speed up and scale up investigations. The work done by Brazil and the US is a promising example, which could lead the way for similar collaboration between other nations teaming up to fight corruption in the future.