Brazilians furious at corruption demonstrated on Sunday in support of a politically explosive probe into high-level embezzlement and bribery, but turnout was lower than at previous protests.
The long-planned day of nationwide demonstrations kicked off in the capital Brasília and Rio de Janeiro, before shifting to the nation’s biggest city, São Paulo.
Protesters, many wearing the yellow shirts of the country’s beloved football team or draping themselves in the Brazilian flag, said a huge investigation known as Operation Car Wash must not let up in intensity.
Organizers of the Take to the Streets group said that the objective was to express support for the Car Wash criminal investigation: “We must punish the corrupt, make a real cleanup and build a new Brazil.”
With the number of politicians targeted by the probe rapidly increasing — reportedly now including around nine members of President Michel Temer’s cabinet – many in Brasília are trying to slow Car Wash down.
Protesters focused their anger on a law putting all criminal cases involving politicians in the hands of the Supreme Court, which moves at a snail’s pace, taking years to bring prosecutions to trial.
But compared to similar demonstrations over the last two years, Sunday’s event was smaller. Hundreds gathered in Brasilia and several thousand in Rio on the iconic Copacabana beachfront.
The São Paulo turnout was far off the huge crowds that gathered over the last two years to call for the impeachment of leftist president Dilma Rousseff, who was eventually ejected last year and replaced by center right Michel Temer.
Rogerio Chequer, head of Take to the Streets, told reporters in São Paulo that the protests were still significant. “The number is not our main focus today, it’s the message we’re sending,” he said. “If at the end of the day Brazil understands what’s happening in Brasília, then our objective has been met.”
Operation Car Wash has uncovered a vast web of politicians and executives who fleeced state oil company Petrobras, with a lot of dirty money funneling into party election funds.
The probe got even bigger this month with a request by Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot to open new investigations expected to target more than 100 politicians.
A week ago, Brazilians got a shock on a new front when police said they’d uncovered a scheme to bribe corrupt health inspectors at meatpacking plants to certify tainted meat. The revelation prompted several big markets, including China, to impose brief but damaging import bans.
As Car Wash’s crusading chief judge Sergio Moro advances, a panicky Congress is trying to push back. Lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation that would pardon anyone who had received undeclared campaign donations in the past, while making it illegal in the future.
This would effectively become an amnesty for politicians who took secret donations or what may have been plain bribes.