CURITIBA, Brazil (AP) — When federal judge Sergio Moro resigned to enter politics, many in Brazil believed the anti-corruption crusader who jailed a popular former president could one day hold the nation’s most powerful office.
But on the eve of Brazil’s general election on Sunday, the once-revered judge was struggling in what polls say meant a losing battle for a Senate seat. And the leftist leader he jailed, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, didn’t just walk around freely – he was expected to storm back into the presidential palace.
Her reversal of fate underscores the shifting priorities of Brazilians since Moro oversaw a massive transplant investigation from Curitiba, the capital of southern Parana state. Moro and President Jair Bolsonaro have made strong reference to da Silva’s jail time, although the former president has always maintained his innocence and said he was jailed. But voters are more focused on bread-and-butter concerns — jobs, income, inflation — after eight years of recession or sluggish growth, said Bruno Brandão, executive director of anti-corruption organization Transparency International in Brazil.
“Corruption was undoubtedly the most important issue in the electoral process in 2018,” said Brandão. “Today, the issue does not have the same importance among voters.”
And Curitiba lost the limelight. Before the so-called car wash investigation that put da Silva and other powerful figures behind bars, the relatively young city, populated largely by transplants, offered little identity, according to Nelson Rosário de Souza, a sociologist at the Federal University of Parana. Car Wash made Curitiba famous. The multi-year investigation and Moro struck fear into the hearts of wayward politicians and leaders previously thought to be untouchable.
“It shook the collective imagination, like, ‘We’re finally taking center stage and apparently for something positive. We’re going to clean up Brazil,'” said de Souza.
Brazilians enjoyed the myriad stages of Car Wash as if they were episodes of a juicy telenovela. Movies were made. Moro’s face appeared in magazines and he was celebrated in Curitiba’s restaurants; People clapped when he entered and sent champagne. A real hero.
“They drove through Curitiba and five or six out of ten cars had bumper stickers supporting car wash. Very few people in Curitiba dared to criticize that,” said Luis Carlos Rocha, da Silva’s attorney at the time.
After Moro sentenced da Silva to nearly ten years in prison, Rocha would visit him every weekday on the fourth floor of the Curitiba Federal Police Headquarters. He was locked in a 160 square foot (about 15 square meter) room for 580 days. Outside, hundreds of supporters held a vigil demanding his release.
Moro’s cheerleaders, meanwhile, have settled in front of his offices. A towering inflatable Superman bearing Moro’s head joined protesters whose T-shirts read “Republic of Curitiba” — a motto borrowed from da Silva’s complaint that the city appeared to be obeying its own laws.
Da Silva’s beliefs allowed far-right Bolsonaro to win the 2018 race. In Parana, a traditional right-wing stronghold, his fight against corruption gained traction and he garnered twice as many votes as his opponent. He then appointed Moro Minister of Justice.
But Moro overestimated how far his clout against corruption could take him, said Emerson Cervi, a political scientist at the Federal University of Parana. Moro quit in 2020 before implementing his much-vaunted plan, claiming Bolsonaro tried to interfere with the federal police. And Bolsonaro’s social media warriors turned their fire on the renegade.
“He thought he would be revered as if he were a court judge again, but other politicians understood that he was just a beginner,” Cervi said.
Then the Supreme Court ruled that Moro had been biased against da Silva by working with prosecutors to secure a conviction, based on a wealth of messages received by The Intercept Brasil. Moro was pursuing a “power project that required the political delegitimization of the Labor Party, and particularly of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,” Justice Gilmar Mendes said last year.
After his convictions were overturned, Da Silva, commonly known as Lula, was cleared for a presidential run and Moro prepared his own. Moros was a wet squib, so he put out feelers for a Senate bid in mighty Sao Paulo, which also went under. He chose to compete in his home state — and touted the virtues of car wash with an anti-Lula platform — and polls last month showed him far behind.
In a brief interview in Curitiba, Moro downplayed waning concerns about corruption as “awkward.”
“Corruption will always be an issue in elections, maybe at some moments it won’t be the main problem,” he told the Associated Press. “The ingrained corruption in Brazilian democracy, in the public sector, is something that will end up destroying our democracy.”
“Lula is a symbol of impunity,” he added.
Local polls showed some late wins for Moro, said Arilton Freres, director of the Curitiba-based Instituto Opinião. That could be due to revived anti-da Silva sentiment, fueled by polls showing he could win against Bolsonaro on Sunday without a runoff.
People may also care less about corruption amid investigations into Bolsonaro’s family members, he added.
“Voters are now thinking, ‘If I have to vote for someone who’s corrupt anyway, then I’m going to focus on what concerns me the most, and that’s the economy,'” Freres said.
Curitiba’s biggest rally this year was for da Silva. His supporters worried about turnout given the pro-Bolsonaro and pro-Moro leanings, but police estimated 12,000 people attended. The lively event grew into a campaign video titled “Lula in the Arms of Curitiba’s People,” which shows people reaching for any part of his body that they can.
Da Silva, who cited his prison time to draw comparisons to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd there was a bonus: his romance with Parana-born Rosângela Silva, nicknamed Janja. He has attributed his first wife’s death in 2017 to pressure from Car Wash.
“There are people who think I hate Curitiba because I was imprisoned here,” he said. “Prison made me love Curitiba because it was here, in prison, that I met Janja and it was here that we decided to get married.”
And he paid tribute to those who kept the 580-day vigil: “Thank you Curitiba for all you have done for me and for Brazil.”
Moro tweeted that the rally was “incredible,” adding that it reflects a legal system that allows the corrupt to leave. Two weeks later, speaking to about 100 people at a private club in Curitiba, he assured them that “many lies have been told about car wash.” Afterwards, dozens eagerly snapped photos with the famous former judge.
One of his constituents, Juliane Morvan, said Curitiba still felt unfairly treated by da Silva’s release, although she criticized Moro for “circumventing certain laws to force Lula’s detention.”
“I agree with his (Moros) morals and ethics and overall he has done more good things than bad,” said Morvan, 28, near the federal police building. “I want to give him a chance to see what he wants to do.”
This isn’t the overwhelming pandering that Moro once enjoyed.
Beto Simonetti, the president of Brazil’s Bar Association, said if Moro doesn’t win his Senate seat, the special legal treatment the position offers will make him “an even easier target” for lawsuits from those who convicted him of bias.
Nothing would please Maite Ritz more.
She is the director of the Car Wash Museum, a virtual space that takes a highly critical look at the probe’s legality. Da Silva’s rally celebrated the community local leftists had created, Ritz said. His victory – and Moro’s downfall – would mean vindication.
“In 2018, I didn’t have the guts to walk the streets in a Lula t-shirt,” she said. “Now I wear it proudly.”
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.