Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing a political backlash after the task force at the centre of the long-running Lava Jato — or Car Wash — anti-corruption probe was disbanded.
For almost seven years, prosecutors based in the southern city of Curitiba investigated a vast contracts-for-kickbacks scheme that ensnared hundreds of Brazil’s most prominent politicians and businessmen.
The nationwide probe — which eventually spread around Latin America — resulted in almost 300 guilty verdicts, including the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Another former president, Michel Temer, was arrested and released but remains under investigation.
The probe has clawed back more than R$4bn ($750m) for the public coffers, including those of the federal government and state-controlled oil company Petrobras.
However, since the election in 2018 of Mr Bolsonaro — who pledged to root out graft — the investigation has come under increasing political pressure and many feared its days were numbered as early as the middle of last year. On Wednesday, the group announced its termination after several of its investigators were seconded to another federal anti-organised crime task force.
Leading politicians lashed out at the rightwing populist leader over the termination of the task force.
“It is possible to discuss the extent of the Bolsonaro government's responsibility in relation to the more than 227,000 deaths by Covid, but in the case of Lava Jato's death, this fault is 100 per cent theirs,” Alessandro Vieira, a senator with the centre-left Cidadania party, wrote on Twitter.
“It is terrible that it ends as if all the work was complete,” posted Paulo Ganime, leader of the centre-right Novo party in the lower house of Congress.
“From now on, the task force must be formed by all of us, as the fight against corruption cannot stop.”
Salim Mattar, a businessman who quit his post as privatisation secretary in the Bolsonaro administration last year, lamented the closure of an operation that had “wiped out the biggest corruption scheme in the world”.
“Victory of the establishment, criminals and opportunists on duty. The losers are the #taxpayers who had their money stolen,” he wrote on Twitter.
The development comes at a time of renewed concerns over corruption in Latin America’s largest country. This week, a candidate backed by Mr Bolsonaro, Arthur Lira, was elected speaker of Brazil’s lower house of Congress, despite being investigated as part of the Car Wash probe.
One of Mr Bolsonaro’s sons, Flávio, a senator, was charged last year with embezzlement, money laundering and criminal association — allegations he denies.
Shortly after his office announced the end of the Lava Jato probe, the attorney-general, Augusto Aras, downplayed its significance as merely a change of name.
“Prosecutors are not stars,” added Mr Aras, who had previously criticised the probe as a “box of secrets”.
Deltan Dallagnol, a federal prosecutor and former head of the task force, said there was “still a lot of work to do” and urged that the fight against graft be properly resourced.
“The task force ends as a model of success in terms of accountability for the corrupt, recovery of embezzled money and diagnosis of Brazilian political macro-corruption,” he wrote on Twitter.
A branch of Lava Jato in São Paulo was wound down last year and another in Rio de Janeiro is due to finish in April.
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice