Crime and Impunity

Crime and Impunity

Many in Brazil felt impunity had taken a major hit back in 1992,
when President Fernando Collor de Mello was forced out of office.
Unfortunately, since Collor, far too many cases
have managed to escape unpunished.
By Adhemar Altieri

A series of major tests for one of Brazil’s key institutions is unfolding. It involves
situations Brazilians have seen come and go many times over the years, with predictable
results: high-ranking public officials or prominent members of society are exposed for
multi-figure backroom embezzlement, the ugly deeds are investigated and described in
detail by prosecutors and the media, an outcry follows… but seldom does it all lead
to a fitting finale. Something is always missing for the guilty to be confirmed, and
invariably it all wraps up with another chapter added to Brazil’s lengthy history of
impunity. The institution in the spotlight, quite appropriately, is the Judiciary.

Three specific cases have the potential to mark a new beginning, a real change in this
undesirable routine for any nation wishing to call itself democratic. On the flipside, if
none of these cases result in proper punishment, they will surely contribute to reaffirm
the sad reality Brazilians have grown uncomfortably accustomed to. A more dangerous
consequence will be the message that yet another round of impunity may deliver: that a
"free for all" mentality, which many claim already exists at some levels, is now
somehow official—if the law can’t reach certain people, no matter how blatant and
obvious their misdeeds, why should anyone need to bother with the law at all…

The first ongoing case, and the one drawing the most attention because of its sheer
magnitude, hits the Judiciary directly. It involves former Labor Court Judge Nicolau dos
Santos Neto, accused of masterminding one of the biggest single acts of corruption ever
made public in Brazil: the misappropriation of about $93 million earmarked for
construction of a new Labor Courts building in São Paulo. The case has already led to the
first-ever expulsion from the Brazilian Senate. Wealthy Brasília entrepreneur Luiz
Estevão was ditched by his peers, and stands accused of being the actual owner of the
construction company in charge of the ill-fated court-building project. On paper, the
company is supposedly owned by two "front men"—both were jailed and
released on bail.

The case has become something of a joke because Judge Nicolau has been on the run from
police since April of this year. His wife disappeared soon after that. Brazil’s Federal
Police, the equivalent of the FBI in the U.S., is questioned frequently because of its
inability to find a runaway 72-year-old retiree. Pressure for results led to the November
16 dismissal of the force’s regional chief in São Paulo, Yokio Oshiro, but what happened
to him next left the impression he wasn’t exactly punished: Oshiro was assigned to be the
new Security Attaché at Brazil’s Embassy in Buenos Aires.

The head of the force, Agílio Monteiro Filho, actually uses the FBI to fight off
questions about the feds’ commitment to arresting the former Judge: "runaway
criminals are not exclusive to Brazil, and even the FBI can’t capture all its
fugitives", he says. It’s important to note that Brazil’s Federal Police answers
directly to the Justice Ministry.

In the past weeks, new documents produced by prosecutors have strengthened the case
against Judge Nicolau and former Senator Luiz Estevão. Much of the new evidence surfaced
in the United States, and indicates that at least three bank accounts—two in Miami
and one in New York, reportedly belonging to Estevão and his wife—were used to
siphon money from the courthouse project in Brazil to Judge Nicolau’s account in
Switzerland. Police surveillance of Estevão has now been increased because of fears he
might try to leave the country. The new evidence is reported to be sufficient for a second
arrest order to be issued at any moment against the former Senator. His lawyers freed him
of the first one in less than 24 hours.

On November 18, several media outlets reported Nicolau was ready to turn himself in.
According to his lawyer, he demanded that he not be "publicly humiliated or exhibited
as a trophy by police". President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in Panama at the time to
attend the Ibero-American Summit, answered back: "certainly there is to be no deal.
Someone being pursued for misappropriation of public funds must simply be arrested.
Whether he is found, or turns himself in, is a mere detail." The President should
chat with his good friend, Justice Minister José Gregori, who admitted on the same day to
having met with Nicolau’s lawyer, but insisted no negotiations took place…

The second ongoing case that popped up in the media again in recent days involves
former banker Salvatore Cacciola, another runaway charged with fraud and misuse of public
funds. Cacciola was actually arrested, in connection with a highly questionable 1999
bailout with public funds supplied to his investment bank, Banco Marka. The arrest was
seen with enthusiasm: could it be, at last, that impunity is finally in check? But the
letdown came quickly, when a Federal Court judge agreed to let him await trial in freedom.
New evidence surfaced shortly after and a new arrest order was issued, but Cacciola had
already left Brazil by car to Buenos Aires, and flown to his native Italy.

Cacciola had not been heard from for months, until Brazil’s TV Globo located him and
aired a story on November 16 about his current routine in Rome. He is said to be spending
most of his time in a small apartment surfing the Internet, awaiting a decision by the
Italian Judiciary on Brazil’s request for his extradition. Because Cacciola holds
Brazilian and Italian citizenship, bringing him back to face the music in Brazil is
expected to be a difficult negotiation. Cacciola may have hinted that he doesn’t expect to
be sent back, when he told TV Globo he is planning to move to the outskirts of Rome in
December, with his family.

The third situation drives a long, jagged nail into the heart of what is the first love
of most Brazilians. The game of football—soccer for our American readers—is
being exposed for what most in Brazil have always known or suspected it to be behind the
scenes: a cauldron of corrupt activity, with clubs and federations used as power bases by
mostly unscrupulous politicians, often with the knowledge, cooperation and involvement of
coaches and star players admired around the world for their artistry on the field.

Two parliamentary inquiries into football have been launched—one at the Lower
House of Congress, the other at the Senate. At first, both were nearly laughed off as
pointless investigations, since so many team and league bosses are also elected officials,
who have found a way to be directly involved in both inquiries. Nobody seriously expected
them to investigate themselves. But it now seems that with two investigations happening
simultaneously, a bit of a race between them is taking place, to see which is able to
uncover more than the other, and thus appear to be the "serious" one before the

While installing these parliamentary inquiries appeared frivolous at first, with many
analysts saying Congress surely had more important matters to look into, the facts prove
otherwise. For example, studies have shown that Brazilian football ought to be comparable,
in terms of its financial strength and ability to retain top players, to that of
Spain—one of the better leagues in Europe. Instead, what Brazilians have witnessed
over the past few years is the early departure of just about any player that shows some
promise, and not always to top leagues elsewhere in the world. In effect, Brazil has
become little more than a player supplier, to countries that couldn’t dream of ever
accomplishing what Brazil has already done on the world football scene. Kind of like the
NBA losing its top players to German or Mexican clubs…

Even worse is the spurious way in which these player transfers are carried out. Common
features include transaction fees always much lower than those involving players of
similar caliber elsewhere in the world, and Brazilian players often re-transferring soon
after leaving Brazil. But the amount of that second transfer is always substantially
higher—amazing how quickly those Brazilian players increase in value once they’re
playing elsewhere! What nearly every Brazilian football fan suspects is that most player
deals that take stars away to other countries are done mainly under the table. The small
transfer fee officially announced is what was put on paper. The "difference" can
usually be pinned down when the same player transfers again, for a far more substantial

What it all means is that Brazilian football is being filched relentlessly, because the
people who run it are very willing participants, corrupt to a point where even the
staunchest football fan in Brazil at times wonders how it was possible for this country to
accomplish everything that it did, and establish itself as a world football power over so
many years. Football, which has obvious potential to be a healthy, prosperous enterprise
in Brazil, generating jobs, economic activity, entertainment and a positive image,
currently does all of the opposite: clubs are mostly broke, the best players are gone,
crowds are dwindling even for matches between the most traditional clubs, and the quality
of matches is nondescript. One of the parliamentary inquiries into football has summoned
the transfer documents for thousands of players dealt to other countries over the past
eight years—these will now be crosschecked with Central Bank records about each
transfer. Plenty should surface from that exercise alone.

Of course, there is also the matter of a multi-million dollar sponsorship contract
between sports equipment manufacturer Nike and the Brazilian National Soccer Federation,
around which numerous accusations have been made. These range from payoffs to league
bosses, to interference by Nike at the 1998 World Cup Final, in which Brazil was defeated
by France 3-1. Specifically, Nike is accused of forcing the Brazilian side to field its
star striker Ronaldinho—a Nike-sponsored athlete—who had suffered what has been
described as something of a nervous breakdown hours before the big match. Ronaldinho
played terribly in Brazil’s losing effort…

Many in Brazil felt impunity had taken a major hit back in 1992, when President
Fernando Collor de Mello, swamped by evidence and accusations of corruption _ even from
his own brother _ left office to avoid impeachment. His political rights were taken away
for eight years nevertheless, a moment savored by many in Brazil who felt personally
responsible for what took place, such was the wave of discontentment that hit the streets
and dominated the media. The full force of that civic effort was felt all the way at the
top of the power structure, and a President was forced out of power—no coup, no
messing with the institutions: everything done by the book. Unfortunately, since Collor,
far too many cases have managed to escape unpunished.

To be fair, Brazil’s federal legislative—probably because it comes under public
and media scrutiny much more easily and directly—has indeed reacted and come a long
way in dealing with impunity. Several expulsions have taken place, and even a pair of
arrests. There is also far more awareness of wrongdoing in Brazil nowadays, far less
tolerance for it from society, and even less from an at times hyperactive media when it
comes to sniffing out scandals. Most of this, however, does not apply to the Brazilian
Judiciary, which continues to carry on in ways that defy reason, and lead to rather
unflattering conclusions about those whose main concern should be upholding the law.

The three cases mentioned here are special because they are so typical, involving
high-profile people, large amounts, plenty of media coverage and multiple, serious,
damning details exposed. Whether it be Judge Nicolau turning himself in, banker Cacciola
sent back to face trial, or big name football players, coaches and bosses eventually
indicted over what the inquiries uncover, Brazil’s Judiciary is going to get several
cracks at very high-profile, heavily exposed and documented situations. Major
opportunities to show that it too has had enough, and wants to turn the page on impunity,
this most negative chapter of Brazil’s contemporary history.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada and
the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University
in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada and Brazil.
Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The Greenfield
Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the editor of
InfoBrazil –, an
English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at

comments to

You May Also Like

Central do Brasil Is Brazil Searching for Its Innocence

For film-lovers, Walter Salles’ Central do Brasil not only encapsulates the sum total of ...

Cuban-Brazilian Cigar Looking Overseas for Smokers

Menendez Amerino, the largest cigar producer in Brazil, is betting on the Arab market ...

Venezuela in Mercosur: Problem Is Not Country But Chavez, Says Brazilian Senator

Talking about the admission of Venezuela into Mercosur, the president of the Brazilian Senate ...

Brazil Market Has Fallen 51% in 2008, Worst in Country’s History

The falling prices of oil, which hurt state-controlled oil multinational Petrobras, the most important ...

90% of Brazil’s Sewage Is Dumped Untreated In Rivers and Lakes

Wednesday, March 22, on World Water Day, a director of a Brazilian NGO, SOS ...

In Brazil, Only 9% of Congress Members Are Women

Yesterday was World Population Day. The theme of the celebration this year was gender ...

Women Get 60% of All New Jobs in Sí£o Paulo, Brazil

The labor market in the city of São Paulo is quite different from the ...

Despite Sharp Fall in Industrial Production Brazil Expecting Record Trade Surplus

In October, Brazil posted a trade surplus of US$ 2.355 billion, beating forecasts for ...

The Brazilian Bloody War Against US Monsanto and Swiss Syngenta

On March 7 – International Women’s Day – dozens of Brazilian women occupied a ...

Brazil and US Join Efforts to Fight Sex Slavery

New action strategies for the war against human traffic are being organized by officials ...