Federal Judge Sergio Moro gestures during a public hearing at the special committee of the Chamber of Deputies that discusses changes in the code of criminal procedure in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 30, 2017.
Figurehead: Sérgio Moro, pictured at a public hearing, is at the forefront of a new generation in the country’s legal system © AFP

There is, wrote Caspar Barlaeus, the 17th century Dutch theologian and historian, “no sin below the Equator; it is as if the line that divides the hemispheres also separated virtue from vice”.

The sentence has often been quoted by Brazilian writers to define a feeling that inhabits the country’s collective imagination: the acceptance as a natural occurrence of ethical and moral deviations, such as those seen in corruption cases.

This paradigm is being broken in Brazil, albeit at the cost of a highly turbulent moment in the nation’s political history. Central to this is Operation Car Wash (Lava-Jato), one of the broadest anti-corruption drives ever launched by the Brazilian federal police and whose main proponent is Sérgio Moro, the federal judge at the forefront of the country’s anti-graft movement.

Despite being an emerging nation that is home to global brands and is among the 10 largest economies, Brazil still sets social inequality records. In 2016, it was ranked a distressingly low 79th among 176 nations on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions index.

Part of this perception is built on a recurring feeling of impunity. “The rich, politicians and business people do not go to prison when they commit crimes,” has long been the view heard from ordinary Brazilians. This is changing. There is no question that people and social and economic groups that have always been thought of as “untouchable” have begun to feel the weight of Brazilian justice.

Operation Car Wash and the strict application of the law have led to more than 100 convictions of law-breaking business people and politicians thanks to well-documented evidence of misappropriations of funds that have drained billions from the government’s treasury.

Moro is the most emblematic figure of this change. He was born in Maringá, a mid-sized city in a wealthy region in the south, and at 45 he is one of many young leaders who have climbed the country’s legal hierarchy very quickly.

An education that included a spell at Harvard Law School places Moro as a member of a legal generation who have dedicated themselves to studying the dynamics of corruption in Brazil. This enables them to change the way the country deals with these crimes and the punishment of perpetrators. Few details about his private life are known, which has contributed to the image of a selfless judge who is dedicated to his work.

The path of Operation Car Wash has been similar to the Clean Hands (Mani Pulite) operation launched in Italy in 1992, which changed that country’s political and economic scenario forever. In 2004, Moro wrote a scholarly paper in which he called the Italian operation “an extraordinary moment in contemporary judicial history” and his admiration for the Italian legal system’s modus operandi drove him to develop the initiative in Brazil.

Despite perceptions of Moro as a force for positive change, critics accuse him of arbitrarily investigating and convicting defendants. Unorthodox means such as wiretapping have led to protests from his detractors.

Moro recently said that it is difficult to estimate a deadline for the end of Operation Car Wash, but that it is already “over halfway there”. Each day investigations bring up new facts about the corruption at the heart of some of the main sectors of the Brazilian economy, from oil and gas to civil construction. Regardless of the criticism of Moro’s work, his legacy cannot be denied. It is through him that Brazil is finally addressing its historical problem of corruption.

There can be no doubt about Brazil’s potential. It is a rich country that enjoys a thriving and diversified economy but still suffers from a large social gap. The contrast between the joy and motivation of a creative and entrepreneurial people and the despondency brought about by the lack of hope for social mobility was one of the trademarks of Brazilian society for many years.

The Car Wash operation offers hope in the struggle against impunity. Moro’s main legacy to our nation is to have created an environment to fight endemic and unpunished corruption.

In today’s world, full of ambivalence, contrast, intolerance and moral and ethical failure, it is important to launch initiatives, such as the one Moro leads. These show us a new path, one that is more ethical and fairer.

It is a path along which virtue will undoubtedly overcome vice.

Antonio Batista da Silva Junior is dean of Fundação Dom Cabral (FDC) in Brazil

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