Brazil’s chief prosecutor charged former presidents Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff with running a “criminal organization,” marking a new attempt by judicial officials to prove that the former leaders’ political party functioned more like a crime syndicate. But the accusations seem like a stretch and may establish a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions. 

Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office announced on September 5 that Lula, Rousseff and several other high-level officials in the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) have been charged with engaging in corruption, money laundering and “cartel” activity during the party’s 14-year control of the presidency.

Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot submitted a 230-page indictment to the Supreme Court accusing Lula and his successor Rousseff of acting as the leaders of a “criminal organization” that penetrated many of the country’s main political parties, government-contracted companies, high-level officials and financial institutions.

The indictment says the “criminal group” was broken into four pieces: 1) political; 2) economic; 3) administrative; 4) financial. Each “nucleus” was integrated and dependent on the others, the indictment says, but they acted in concert and had a clear command and control in the form of Lula and Rousseff.

“This was organized crime,” the prosecutors write, “with myriad interconnected actors in a horizontal structure, cooperativist model, in which those involved combined forces and objectives, like a more vertical and hierarchical structure, with strategic centers of command and control that would make the most important decisions.”   

The accusations mark the first time that Rousseff has faced criminal charges linked to the expansive anti-corruption investigation known as “Operation Car Wash” (“Operação Lava Jato”), which revealed massive and complex bribery and political influence schemes linked to both private sector conglomerates and state-run firms. Lula has previously faced separate charges related to the investigation.

Janot, who is reaching the end of his four-year term, may have dropped these striking charges as “one last cannon barrage” on his way out, some observers say.

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Janot indicated in the indictment that although this particular set of charges has been brought against Workers’ Party officials, several other political parties are also under investigation for their involvement in a “single complex criminal organization.”

Indeed, one figure under investigation is current President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – PMDB). According to Janot’s indictment, after Rousseff was impeached and removed from office last year, the PMDB inherited leadership of the criminal structure.

Janot first charged Temer with “passive corruption” in June, but an August congressional vote protected him from facing trial. A second charge against Temer is expected in the coming days, which would once again force congress to vote on whether or not the highly unpopular president should face trial.

Several politicians tied to Temer’s administration have recently been arrested, including former minister Geddel Vieira Lima, in whose apartment police found suitcases and boxes filled to the brim with $16.4 million (51 million reais) in cash.

The pervasive corruption plaguing Brazil was also illustrated by accusations lodged by prosecutors on September 5 that high-profile Brazilian officials and businessmen paid bribes to secure the city of Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games — a mega-event that has been extensively scrutinized for opening new opportunities for Car Wash-style graft.

“The Olympic Games were used as a big trampoline for acts of corruption,” said Federal Prosecutor Fabiana Schneider.

InSight Crime Analysis

Prosecutors in Brazil have previously accused Lula of being at the “vertex” of various criminal schemes exposed by the Car Wash investigations. But this is the first time that they have described the leadership of the PT as key participants in an organized criminal structure. In other words, they are arguing that it was a conspiracy.

This is a significant turn in strategy that appears aimed at prosecuting many more members of the PT and possibly other political heavies who seem to be systematically bilking the government. In effect, prosecutors would face less of a burden to prove that those whom they implicate actually participated in the graft itself or received some sort of compensation. Having a leadership role — as was the case with Rousseff — may suffice.   

The shift follows a series of shaky prosecutions that have gone through the judicial system already. Lula was first accused of creating and directing an expansive corruption ring in 2016. However, the lofty accusations did not match up with the charges against him, which centered around his alleged acceptance of a $1 million bribe that paled in comparison to the amounts received by other alleged participants in the scheme.

In the new indictment, Janot attempts to lay out a clearer case, and paints not only Lula, but Rousseff as well, as key leaders of a vast “criminal organization” uncovered by the Car Wash investigation. But as InSight Crime has previously reported, the corruption affecting Brazil’s economic and political systems is so deeply-entrenched and decentralized that it is unlikely that a handful of individuals actually managed the activities revealed by the probe, as the indictment seems to suggest.

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And although the recent charges have been interpreted by many news outlets to mean that the PT itself is a “criminal organization,” the indictment actually cites the political party as one of many actors involved in the broader corruption scandal exposed by the Car Wash investigation.

The indictment strongly suggests that former leaders Lula and Rousseff were aware that corruption was taking place during their tenures. And they may have played a key role in facilitating the continuation of what officials have described as “systemic corruption.”

But where will prosecutors draw the line on that conspiracy in the case of the PT and others? Corruption is pervasive and in reality an outgrowth of corrupt networks and practices that stretch back to the era of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from the 1960s until the 1980s. If the government successfully proves its case, authorities may be able to rope many others into that same conspiracy net. While perhaps justified in cases where leaders have been shielded or successfully hid their benefits, this powerful prosecutorial tool could also easily be abused.