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Political scientist examines more than 3,000 anti-corruption operations

by Richard Meckien - published May 16, 2019 12:30 PM - - last modified May 20, 2021 12:04 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Rogério Bastos Arantes - 2018
Rogério Bastos Arantes: "Changes in the Public Prosecutor's Office, the Federal Police, the federal courts, and the system they integrate have reshaped the criminal jurisdiction related to political corruption and organized crime.''

Knowing the causes of political corruption and the organized crime associated with it in Brazil, as well as the way in which the bodies destined to combat it operate, is something that requires understanding from the micro-foundations of rational action, through the weight of patrimonialism in the historical formation of the country, up to the effects of the institutional and organizational scheme on the behavior of the crimes' actors, according to political scientist Rogério Bastos Arantes, a professor at the Department of Political Science at USP's Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences.

Arantes is one of the participants in IEA's Sabbatical Year Program in 2019, in which he develops the research project "Political Corruption and Organized Crime in Brazil."

For him, however, the components linked to the causes of corruption and organized crime in the country should not be understood only in the light of a positive theory, characterized by the explanation of processes and institutions from realistic assumptions about human behavior and through resources and techniques for research and validation of results towards the search for generalizations. "This work must also be inspired by the democratic promises to be made."


The survey of convictions produced by the penal system, the analysis of cases reported by the media, and interviews with citizens and specialists are the three types of research used to circumvent the difficulties of directly measuring corruption, according to the literature examined by Arantes. His project will go beyond the simple survey of convictions, "as it will gather information about the phenomenon from the early stages of the criminal investigation and organize them in the form of a large qualitative database."

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More than 3,000 operations carried out by the Federal Police (PF) and the Public Prosecutor's Office (MPF) between 2003 and 2017 will be analyzed. The objective is to map crimes related to political corruption and examine the performance of the main institutions involved in combating these criminal practices, especially both mentioned above and the federal courts.

According to Arantes, the mapping "may result in a new empirical typology of state and governmental activities, and of private economies that are more subject to political corruption and organized crime." He estimates that the result of this work will be the most comprehensive picture of these criminal actions.


The study will also provide knowledge about the institutional and organizational bases of action of the bodies in charge of investigating and prosecuting such crimes, explains the researcher. The constitutive poles of the penal system, namely PF, MPF, and the federal courts, "have undergone significant displacements that have reshaped the criminal jurisdiction related to the fight against political corruption and organized crime."

Taken as a whole, the research project will require an interdisciplinary approach, especially by mobilizing the fields of political science and law. The main results of the work will be the subject of at least one scientific article. Arantes also intends to draft a book on the research topics. The publicly accessible database will be structured after the publications and will be permanently updated, so that "studies and analyzes can be replicated, new hypotheses can be tested, and new theories can be tried".

Arantes plans to give two conferences, one in each semester of 2019, and organize a seminar at the end of his sabbatical period, with the participation of researchers and public leaders concerned with the research topic.

Quantitative data

The database on the more than 3,000 operations began to be built in 2018 and uses the summaries written by the PF as source. Gaps and inconsistencies of information have been solved through research on official websites of other institutions involved in the operations, professional associations (especially those linked to the PF), and also the mainstream press.

To examine the organizational dimension, Arantes uses the available data on the renewal of staff, and of the technical and strength apparatus of the PF that occurred in recent years.

According to him, the preliminary analysis of the first 600 operations of the investigated period has revealed the occurrence of more than 50 types of crimes, with 23% of them being related to corruption crimes and 16% pointing to public servants involved in other types of crimes that needed the support of corrupt practices. Another obtained information was that no less than 24,923 provisional arrests were carried out from 2003 to 2015 in 2,866 operations.

"Through judicial authorizations and under the supervision or active participation of the MPF, the PF has already launched hundreds of operations against corrupt politicians at all levels of the federation and in all branches of government. It has also reached out to judges and police officers of all existing corporations in the country, including itself, as well as to corrupt public servants in the most diverse areas of public administration."

According to Arantes, Operation Lava Jato has so far carried out almost a thousand search and seizure warrants, executed more than two hundred coercive conducts, and served 115 preventive and 121 temporary arrests." Adding up the sentences of those convicted so far, including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Lava Jato has already reached almost 2,000 years in convictions."

Although the unprecedented collection of information that reveal the profile and extent of these practices in Brazil only provides knowledge of the cases in which the actions of the PF and MPF had some effect, "this is the largest volume of data on such criminal practices ever produced in the country."

Qualitative information

In-depth interviews and exemplary case studies will provide qualitative information for the research. PF delegates and public prosecutors will be interviewed with an emphasis on knowledge about the investigated crimes and the approach to changes in the institutional system.

Members of other institutions who worked on task forces with the PF will also be interviewed. In this case, the objective is to assess the hypothesis of institutional densification within the network of accountability institutions.

The analysis of exemplary cases will seek to assess the effectiveness of criminal proceedings in the operations. In these studies, in addition to the mentioned agents, magistrates will also be interviewed. Lawsuits will be selected for case studies in order to verify whether the obstacles inherent to the triangulation of the criminal justice system have in fact been overcome or not, and whether the system has started to operate with a greater degree of effectiveness.


Arantes identifies three significant displacements that the MPF, the PF, the Federal Justice, and the system that they have been part of since the past decade have gone through. These changes "reshaped the criminal jurisdiction related to political corruption and organized crime."

One of them was the fact that actions of administrative impropriety, "elected in the 1990s as the dominant strategy of prosecutors in the fight against corruption," gave way to police investigations and criminal prosecutions of corruption as a common crime in the 2000s, according to the researcher.

Another change in the 2000s was that the main role has shifted from state public ministries to federal agencies, notably the PF, MPF, and federal judges.

The third change has to do with the interaction between the agencies: "the historical disarticulation of the institutions that make up the penal system has led to a greater consolidation of their reciprocal relations, resignifying the forms of investigation, prosecution, and judgment in this field."

Arantes' hypothesis about these three displacements is institutional and organizational in nature. In the first case, "the changes can be explained by the institutional design capable of providing more effective results in the criminal and federal spheres." This effectiveness "also depends on the endogenous motivation and the commitment of organizations to increase the effectiveness of their actions and the consolidation of their reciprocal relations within the accountability network with a view to overcoming isolation and having a greater impact on activities against corruption."

"Considering the period of just over a decade with almost daily operations it is difficult to find a parallel in politics compared to other countries. In addition, the search for greater effectiveness in combating corruption and organized crime through concerted action by the police, prosecutors, and judges represents one of the great news in contemporary Brazil."


"In a country with patrimonialist formation, in which the modernization of economy and State has not been preceded or even accompanied by new power relations based on the liberal principle of the contract, the archaic coexists with the modern as neopatrimonialism or bureaucratic patrimonialism," in the definition of Simon Schwartzman, comments Arantes.

In fact, according to the researcher (based on the studies by Edson Nunes), "the incomplete and contradictory Brazilian modernization could have bequeathed a set of four 'grammars' that organize the relations between the State and society: clientelism, corporatism, bureaucratic isolation, and universal procedures."

In a historical constitution like this, "political corruption could not fail to be endemic and to be present in the most diverse instances of power and representation." Arantes says that in a scenario "in which private agents organize themselves to capture income, and politicians and bureaucrats control massive resources, the opportunity for the practice of corruption is given."

Public debate

"Despite these difficulties, we must recognize that since Brazil's redemocratization the problems of corruption and organized crime have occupied a central place in the public debate, involving representative institutions, being permanently observed by the media, occupying the attention of public opinion in election times (but not only), and mobilizing civil society actors and even international organizations on mission in the country, leading to the promotion of legislative changes and to the signing of treaties in which the need to combat them is highlighted."

Arantes points out the institutional evolution of the country's organs and of the system as a whole to fight corruption: "New methods of investigation associated with new legal provisions and mechanisms of international cooperation have led to incisive actions by the investigative bodies. Added to this is a new stance by the federal magistracy, which places itself closer to the MPF and the PF than as its counterpoint. This means a fight against corruption and organized crime on a scale never seen in the country."

According to the researcher, his project is part of the analytical trajectory of studies that sought to demonstrate that the definitive consolidation of democracy in the countries of the third wave of democratization (as established by Samuel Huntington) depends on advances beyond simple electoral competition and alternation of power. "Among these studies, I highlight those that investigated the connections between corruption, institutional trust, and adherence to the democratic regime," says Arantes referring to the work of political scientist José Álvaro Moises, a senior professor at the IEA, where he coordinates the Quality of Democracy Research Group.

Photo: Fernanda Rezende / IEA-USP