From human rights to corruption fighting: Agenda-shifting in the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office

Authors: Luiz Vilaça*,
Topics: Development, Human Rights, Social Theory
Keywords: Brazil, corruption, anti-corruption commission, human rights
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Executive Room, Omni, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Voters in Brazil recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist candidate, as president. Polls showed that a significant part of Bolsonaro’s supporters justified their votes on the perception that his opponent’s party – the Worker’s Party (PT) – was corrupt. The widespread belief that PT is corrupt, was, at least in part, the result of Car Wash Operation (CWO), the largest anti-corruption operation in Brazilian history. The operation has convicted over 171 people, including former president Lula (PT). In this paper, I trace the origins of an anti-corruption agenda in Brazil. Anti-corruption operations are conducted mainly by the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), an organization independent of the other three branches of government. I show that prosecutors have been increasingly prioritizing corruption fighting over the last 20 years. This shift has been to the detriment of other areas associated with human rights, such as protections for ethnic minorities, the elderly and handicapped people – which dominated the MP’s agenda throughout the 90’s and 2000’s. But what explains this institutional shift? Based on 29 in-depth interviews with prosecutors, police officers and one federal judge, I argue that the process of institutional change in the Brazilian MP was initiated long before CWO exploded in 2014, through institution-building practices of inside activists committed to combatting corruption. These practices created organizational spaces that socialized new prosecutors recruited into corruption-related work. I further argue that this process of change was consolidated and expanded as a result of massive social mobilization organized around anti-corruption issues.

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