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Last Updated: Monday, 18 June 2007, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Bending rules, breaking laws in Brazil
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

Brazilians could be forgiven for sinking into despair under the weight of corruption allegations that are currently filling their daily newspapers.

Federal police agents handle investigation documents. Photo courtesy: Wilson Dias - Agencia Brasil
Police investigations have involved a large number of people

A wide-ranging police investigation into the misuse of money for public works projects has targeted governors, an ex-governor, several mayors and ex-mayors as well as high-level state and federal employees. A government minister, who denies any wrongdoing, has resigned.

The government has admitted that every year, billions of dollars are lost through fraud in tendering for public contracts.

A vivid illustration of this is a picture, widely published in the Brazilian media, of a bridge with no connecting road serving as an improvised snooker hall. It was built, of course, with public money.

The scandals do not just involve the abuse of contracts for public works. Earlier this year more than 20 people, including judges and prosecutors, were arrested over allegations related to illegal gambling.

Even the home of the brother of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was searched as part of an investigation into illegal slot machines. Lula said he did not believe his brother was involved, although he praised the overall police operation.

Some would argue that the relentless arrests of recent weeks is proof that the system works, and that the federal police are doing their job.
The legal procedures for a prosecution in Brazil are very complicated. This is... very good for the lawyers, but not for society
Paulo Renato de Souza
Opposition politician

But statistics support the argument that much wrongdoing in Brazil goes unpunished despite many high-profile investigations.

A columnist in the weekly magazine Veja points to a previous scandal known as Operation Bloodsucker, which involved the purchase of overpriced ambulances.

On the day it was exposed, 48 people were arrested. One year later, Andre Petry points out, no-one is in prison. Of 72 parliamentarians suspected of involvement, none has lost office.

Paulo Renato de Souza of opposition party PSDB says impunity plays a big role - anyone with a lot of money and a good lawyer can frustrate the process with endless delays and appeals, and therefore avoid punishment.

"The legal procedures for a prosecution in Brazil are very complicated. This is something that is very good for the lawyers, but not for society, " he told the BBC News website.

Jumping the queue

So is there too much tolerance in Brazil of bending the rules and breaking the law?

One key part of life in Brazil is the "jeito" or "jeitinho" - the "little way" - a word that can sum up finding a means to get round everything from red tape to avoiding a fine.

A man holds a banner that reads in Portuguese "Corruption is also violence" during a protest against violence in Rio de Janeiro on 31 May 2007
Corruption is violence too, reads this protester's sign

Many jeitinhos can be as harmless as jumping a queue, or an inventive method of overcoming the perils of bureaucracy, or using a friend to get something done. But further down this path the lines can become blurred.

A survey in 2006 suggested 69% of Brazilians believed they had broken a law, while 75% admitted to irregularities, including receiving benefits to which they were not entitled, buying products they knew to be stolen, or presenting false medical certificates to excuse themselves from work.

The survey also indicated a high level of tolerance for corruption in politics.

Silvia Cervellini of market research company IBOPE says there was shock at the conclusions.

"Everybody had this feeling but when you put a number - 75% tolerate political corruption - that is a bad surprise. People somehow knew that we were in this direction, they didn't know the size of it."

Law professor Augusto Zimmerman has argued that: "Because of the many instances in which jeito can be applied, the bypassing of legal norms has become more the rule rather than the exception in Brazil.

"In fact, the bending of laws bears no stigma in the country if it acts as a solution to unfair laws or absurdities of bureaucracy."

But he also warns that constantly resorting to the jeitinho breeds widespread disregard for the rule of law.


Professor Joao Paulo Peixoto, professor of government at Brasilia University, points to other factors: "I don't like very much to explain corruption only by the cultural approach, because, as you know, and we know, politics is much larger than that.

"Culture is one variable that can explain something but when you look to corruption, you see corruption everywhere in the world, no matter whether the society is Anglo-Saxon, Latin or Asian."

Eduardo Suplicy, of President Lula's Workers' Party, a longstanding campaigner against corruption, finds the public anger over recent allegations is encouraging.

"You have mentioned that there are so many Brazilians with a great sense of indignation because of many cases that are happening.

"This is good, this shows that there is no general acceptance of corruption, of misbehaviour in Brazil.

"The majority of Brazilians are honest people, and they want their politicians to behave in an honest way."

It is a simple aspiration, but on the present evidence, one for which the people may have to wait for some time to come.

Brazilians give their opinions on corruption in their country

Brazilian energy minister resigns
23 May 07 |  Americas
Brazilian minister in fraud probe
22 May 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Brazil
13 Aug 05 |  Country profiles

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