A Convenient Crash? Death of a Judge in Brazil May Kill 'Operation Car Wash'

Justice Zavascki’s death is being seen as a conspiracy to stall the probe into a multi-billion dollar scandal that is haunting Brazil’s political and business elite.

Judge Teori Zavascki arrives to attend a session at the Supreme Court in Brasilia March 11, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Files

Judge Teori Zavascki arriving to attend a session at the Supreme Court in Brasilia March 11, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Files

Sao Paulo, Brazil: Timing is everything.

On Thursday evening, within hours of a Beechcraft King Air C90GT plunging into the sea amid heavy rain just off the picture-postcard town of Paraty in the state of Rio de Janeiro, social media in Brazil was buzzing with rumours of “an assassination”. Flying on the twin-engine, turbo-propeller were five persons, including Justice Teori Zavascki, the Brazilian Supreme Court judge who has been overseeing the ongoing probe into the multi-billion dollar scandal – known as “Operation Car Wash” – that has shaken the country’s political class, big corporations and power-brokers. As the eight-seater plane submerged into Paraty’s blue waters, all its passengers died. The news of Zavascki’s death sent shockwaves across the country. The federal government declared three days of national mourning.

With initial reports suggesting that the plane did not have a black box and flew straight into a thunderstorm on its way to a small airport which had no control tower, a few WhatsApp messages began to circulate on Brazil’s hyper-active social media. Culled from a leaked recording of a phone conversation between Senator Romero Juca and Sergio Machado, a former president of a firm, the messages show the two men exchanging conspiratorial notes on how to “stop the bleeding” in the Operation Car Wash trial. Besides planning a “change” in government [of former President Dilma Rousseff], the men – both accused in the case – discuss their failure at making a deal with Zavascki.  “One way is to get someone who has a connection with Teori [Zavascki], but it seems that there is no one,” says Machado. Juca’s reply confirms that they had failed in getting access to the judge. “He is a closed person. It was her [Dilma] who appointed this guy…,” says Juca.

These snatches of conversation are certainly not a smoking gun. But they definitely show the frustration of some very powerful men who wanted to influence Zavascki, known as an upright and no-nonsense judge, in this important case. The timing of the judge’s death has also raised serious suspicions about foul play. With the power to open prosecution against congressmen, senators and federal ministers, Zavascki had recently approved Machado’s plea bargain that implicates Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer, his cabinet members and close aides in the ever-burgeoning scandal.

Independent probe

Ironically, it is Temer who will appoint a new judge to replace Zavascki at the Supreme Court. That new judge will be approved by the Senate, which has 11 of its members under investigation in Operation Car Wash. Also adding to the suspicions is the fact that Juca is a close associate of Temer. “This is an absolute shocker. Justice Zavascki’s death has practically handed over Operation Car Wash to those who are accused in the case. This is too much of a coincidence for it to be an accident,” says a former official of the Federal Police (PF) who had been associated with the investigation. “This crash must be probed by an independent group.”

The aicraft carrying the judge and four others crashed just off the beautiful town of Paraty, which was once a secret port used by the Portuguese to send gold to Europe. Credit: Shobhan Saxena

The aicraft carrying the judge and four others crashed just off the beautiful town of Paraty, which was once a secret port used by the Portuguese to send gold to Europe. Credit: Shobhan Saxena

The official investigation into the crash has just begun. The aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder has been recovered but it may be several weeks – or months – before the cause of the crash is found and revealed to the public. But there are already serious doubts about the official version of the accident that the plane crashed because of “bad weather”.  According to some accounts, it was not raining over Paraty when the plane crashed. On Friday, Andre Barcinski, a senior journalist with Folha newspaper, released a report of his investigation at the crash site. Based on his interviews with eyewitnesses who saw the plane coming down, Barcinski revealed two crucial details: first, the aircraft had “white smoke billowing from its left wing before it lost control, made a sharp turn to the right and splashed into the sea”; second, one of the female victims was alive and kept screaming for help for more than 45 minutes but she was not rescued in time. She died trapped inside the sinking plane. Another eyewitness, a boatmen who helped in the rescue, has said that the marine personnel who arrived quite late at the site made them throw back into water the plane parts they had already retrieved. None of this figures into official accounts.

With more than 48 hours gone since the accident, the government has shared little information about the conditions that led to the crash. This is fuelling suspicion and anger, and making people demand an impartial probe. “Investigations should indicate what reason or reasons led to the crash. And journalists should help in this process by digging and searching for the truth. And, maybe, they will not get it and we’ll never know for sure (what happened),” Leonardo Sakamoto, the country’s most reputed columnist, wrote in his blog on Friday. “And we need to keep an eye on who now gets the Car Wash case. That is to see if the defendants and those cited in the case will now choose the judge who will be in charge of the case.”

This is what Brazil fears today. As Zavascki was the main driving force behind the investigation into the huge corruption scandal that has connections with the top of the political and economic elite, including Temer, many Brazilians are now sceptical about the future of the case and suspicious about the crash. “Justice Teori Zavascki had been strongly driving the Car Wash investigation in the Supreme Court. It’s hard to believe this was a mere accident,” Alan Mansur, director of the National Association of Prosecutors, tweeted on Thursday, soon after the first reports of the accident came in.

A Navy ship is seen near the wreckage from a plane, which crashed with Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing a graft investigation into scores of powerful politicians, in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, January 20, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Bruno Kelly

A Navy ship is seen near the wreckage from a plane, which crashed with Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing a graft investigation into scores of powerful politicians, in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, January 20, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Bruno Kelly

Dark history

Today, Brazilians are suspicious about the crash not only because of its timing but also because of the country’s murky history. In the past 60 years or so, many important persons – mostly politicians – have died in mysterious circumstances, often violently. Almost all of them were seen as a stumbling block by powerful cliques operating in the country’s capital. In 1954, Getulio Vargas, a populist leader who was haunted by the ruling elite and media, was found dead in his bed with a bullet hole in his heart. It was declared a suicide, but many have refused to buy the official theory.

In 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, who built the capital city of Brasilia, was killed in a car crash. But it is widely suspected that the country’s military dictators had ordered a hit job on Kubitschek. The same year, another former president of Brazil, Joao Goulart, a progressive leader who was deposed in the 1964 military coup, died of a “heart attack” in Argentina, where he was living in exile. But a few years later, a former Uruguayan intelligence officer confessed that Goulart was poisoned by agents working for Brazil’s dictators. Both the deaths, like many more across South America, are being officially investigated now.

Zavascki’s death has revived memories of another recent “accident” which claimed the life of a man who could be Brazil’s president one day. In August 2014, just a few months ahead of the presidential election, a Cessna 560XL executive jet plunged into a clearing in the middle of apartment buildings near the port city of Santos. Eduardo Campos, the 49-year-old leader of the Socialist Party and one of the rising stars of Brazilian politics, was killed in that crash as the aircraft exploded on impact with the ground.

Till this day, the cause of the crash remains hazy. The black box of the plane did not record the flight; it had records only of a previous flight when it was opened for analysis. Campos, a centrist politician with progressive policies and a clean image, was seen by many as a future president who would have kept Brazil on its centre-left track. His death left behind a huge void and a number of conspiracy theories, but no credible explanation of what exactly caused the crash.

Conflict of interest

Because of a conflict in the official account of the crash and that of the eyewitnesses who saw Zavascki’s plane fall from the sky, there is already widespread suspicion on whether it was an accident. But there are few doubts that Operation Car Wash is now practically stalled. In their reaction to Zavascki’s death, other judges of the Supreme Court have admitted that the probe will now “decelerate” as Zavascki had carried with him “the whole memory of the operation since its inception more than two years ago” and it will be a while before the next judge “learns the complexity” of the case. “The heart of the Car Wash has been hit,” a judge told the country’s top newspapers.

This is perhaps exactly what a clutch of very powerful men – all accused or facing allegations in the case – wanted to happen to Operation Car Wash. This is how it is likely to unfold.

The Brazilian Supreme Court is in recess these days, till February 1. According to sources, Zavascki’s replacement could be named only when the court meets after the recess next month. Incidentally, Zavascki, who had been reviewing plea bargains of former and current executives of Odebrecht, the construction giant which was one of the main players in the scandal, was expected to give a verdict on these plea bargains by February. With the former Odebrecht director Claudio Melo Filho accusing Temer of receiving illegal campaign money in his plea bargain, a validation by Zavascki would potentially have had serious implications for Temer.

Also, the validation of these plea bargains could potentially implicate dozens of politicians in Brazil and several other countries where Odebrecht has its business operations. “A lot of powerful people in Brazil and abroad want Operation Car Wash to end. Though there is no evidence of foul play at the moment, it’s logical to suspect that this was not an accident. Zavascki and his family had received many death threats recently,” says the former PF official.

A power struggle

Operation Car Wash is no ordinary scandal. It has broken the back of Brazil’s economy. It has now gone beyond Brazil’s border. It has seen more than 100 politicians and top business honchos jailed or probed for allegedly overcharging contracts with the state companies to pay for bribes and illegal election campaigns. Last year, the scandal cast a long shadow over the impeachment of Rousseff, though she was never accused of any corruption (she was impeached for budgetary indiscipline and not corruption). Former President Lula da Silva, an iconic figure in the country, has also been dragged into the case by some prosecutors who have failed to produce any evidence against him. The scandal was reaching Temer and his aides, who all have been implicated in testimonies by those already arrested. Temer, already barred from running for presidency, can be stripped of his post if the court confirms the accusations against him.

But now, by a twist of fate, the future of Operation Car Wash may be in the hands of Temer. A professor of constitutional law, he will now personally lead the selection process for the new judge. Though some reports have suggested that the chief justice of the Supreme Court may hand over the Car Wash case to another sitting judge before Temer names a replacement for Zavascki, the whole process may be time consuming and not free of controversies. On Friday, a Supreme Court judge Justice Marco Aurelio Mello suggested the name of the country’s justice minister Alexandre de Moraes, a controversial and divisive figure, to fill the vacant post. “The next judge appointed by Temer can now be a PMDB vampire (a hatchet man from Temer’s party). There will be a bloody power struggle over this case,” says Miguel Rosario, the editor of O Cafezinho, a leftist website.

Brazil's President Michel Temer. Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Files

Brazil’s President Michel Temer. Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino/Files

Known as the “vampire” and “butler of horror movies” among friends and foes, Temer and his party, PMDB, are both deeply unpopular. His approval ratings are as low as 13%. Since assuming power in May 2016, Temer has tried to replace all social policies implemented during 14 years of Workers Party rule with “market friendly” plans that have failed to lift the economy and aggravated social tensions. With his scandal-plagued government (six of his 22 ministers have resigned over corruption charges) surviving from month to month, Temer is not seen as the leader who can get Brazil out of the mess it is in. But Zavascki’s death may just have thrown him a lifeline. “Temer is a great survivor and ultimate political insider. He will try his best to use this situation to his advantage by naming someone useful as the new judge,” says the retired police official. “But there is a tussle going on between the executive and the judiciary and it’s wrong to assume that he has all the cards up his sleeves.”

A real conspiracy

Operation Car Wash is as much about politics as it is about bribery, corruption and an internecine battle between Brazil’s institutions. As revealed by the leaked recordings of conversation between Juca, a close associate of Temer, and businessman Machado, many powerful men in the country have been working overtime to stall and kill Operation Car Wash. The conversation between Machado and Juca happened in March 2016, shortly before the vote in which the House accepted to continue the impeachment process of Rousseff.

The conversation, recorded by Machado and leaked by Folha newspaper, showed that the two men were working on a strategy of “changing the government” and “making a deal” with the Supreme Court. “From the conversation, it’s clear that Dilma Rousseff was impeached by the most corrupt politicians just to make sure that this case goes nowhere,” says a Workers Party (PT) leader, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was all about robbing PT of legitimate power and putting in place unelected leaders who would do bidding of the most corrupt politicians.”

PT is not all that innocent in this game. Some of its big leaders have landed in jail in this scandal. But Brazil’s oligarchic media has created an impression in the country that only PT and its leadership were responsible for the scandal. The fact is that leaders of almost all political parties are facing charges in this scandal, with the ruling PMDB and PSDB parties topping the list. Workers Party supporters see a three-phase conspiracy here. “First they ganged up and impeached Dilma. Now, they can stall the case in the court. And finally, they will somehow want to implicate Lula in this case so that he can’t run for president in 2018,” says the Workers Party official.

Lula, who retired in 2010 with record ratings, is leading the opinion polls for the next presidential elections in 2018. But his candidature too depends on the fate of Operation Car Wash as he is a defendant in five cases. That may depend a lot on who takes charge of the case after Zavascki – something that is very much in the hands of Brazil’s tainted president. And that is making Brazilians deeply suspicious about the timing of the crash that killed an honest judge.

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist.