Past Event

The Criminalization of Corruption in Latin America

December 1, 2021
12:30 PM - 1:45 PM

The Political Economy of Latin America Group Presents:

The Criminalization of Corruption in Latin America: Prosecutors and Voters during Lava Jato

Speaker: Ezequiel González Ocanto (University of Oxford)

  • Associate Professor in the Qualitative Study of Comparative Institutions: Professorial Fellow

Operation Lava Jato started in Brazil, but quickly turned into a full-blown anti-corruption crusade with legal ramifications and acute political implications across Latin America. Critics see the prosecutorial zeal behind some of the national chapters of Lava Jato as yet another instance of “lawfare.” For others, it anticipates a new era of accountability and regeneration. In this talk I will discuss a co-authored book project that asks two sets of questions. First, what explains why the investigation gained momentum in some countries but stalled in others? The answer looks at the legacy of prosecutorial reforms in the 1990s and 2000s, as well more immediate determinants of prosecutorial zeal, including whether investigators make the tactical decision to operate under the umbrella of a task force. The analysis underscores a key paradox: while the adoption of aggressive and unorthodox prosecutorial strategies is critical for success, this approach also invites and legitimizes backlash, rendering criminalization highly precarious and conflictive. Second, the book relies on focus groups and original surveys to understand the impact of Lava Jato on public opinion. Do corruption prosecutions trigger system satisfaction and hope, conveying a message of possible political regeneration? Or do they signal further decay, exacerbating cynical and defeatist views about the nature and future of politics? Are these investigations capable of galvanizing the public against corruption, or do they turn anti-corruption from a valence issue into a one that is deeply divisive? The book thus contributes to debates about the determinants of strong law enforcement institutions, the (de)merits of accountability through criminalization, and the complicated relationship between corruption, anti-corruption, and public opinion.

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