After seven years, Brazil shuts down Car Wash anti-corruption squad

FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators take part in a motorcade in support of the "Lava Jato" (Car Wash) corruption investigation in front of headquarters of the Attorney General in Brasilia, Brazil September 6, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s Car Wash anti-corruption unit has officially shut down, the end of an era for a team of prosecutors that helped send dozens of Latin American political and business leaders to jail, including several former presidents.

The task force, which stemmed from a routine money-laundering investigation into a car wash in Brasilia, ceased to exist on Monday, although its dissolution was not announced until Wednesday by the federal prosecutors’ office (MPF).

Some of its prosecutors will be transferred to the organized crime unit of the MPF, where they will continue their work, the agency’s statement said.

The Car Wash squad began its work in 2014, focusing on contracting graft at state-run oil company Petrobras, although its scope quickly expanded. Former presidents and major companies throughout Latin America, thought for years to be untouchable, were implicated in sprawling corruption schemes uncovered by the investigators.

Among prominent figures sent to jail because of the investigation were popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Outside of Brazil, ex-presidents in Peru, El Salvador and Panama were also jailed as a result of investigations started by the task force. Major international companies, such as Maersk and Glencore, have also come under the investigators’ microscope.

But many leftists had grown wary of the investigation, in part because of the jailing of Lula, while a series of leaked conversations in 2019 raised questions about whether investigators were cutting corners to secure prosecutions.

Corruption probes into family members of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro have made some conservatives suspicious of efforts to fight corruption as well.

That had left the future of Car Wash in doubt, even as its work remained popular among Brazilians. In September, Brazilian Prosecutor-General Augusto Aras extended the task force’s mandate until Jan. 31, but did not say if he would renew it.

According to its own data, the Car Wash task force was responsible for 295 arrests, 278 convictions and 4.3 billion reais ($803 million) in ill-gotten gains being returned to the Brazilian state during its roughly seven years of operation.

Reporting by Ricardo Brito in Brasilia and Gram Slattery in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Peter Cooney