CURITIBA, Brazil –
When federal judge Sergio Moro resigned to enter politics, many in Brazil believed the anti-corruption crusader who jailed a popular former president might one day hold the most powerful office in the nation.
But on the eve of Brazil’s general election on Sunday, the once-revered magistrate was fighting what polls showed was a losing battle for a Senate seat. And the leftist leader he jailed, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was not only free, but expected to return to the presidential palace.
His reversal of fortunes underscores the shifting priorities of Brazilians since Moro oversaw a massive corruption investigation in Curitiba, the capital of the southern state of Paraná. Moro and President Jair Bolsonaro insist on pointing out da Silva’s time in prison. But voters are more focused on basic concerns — jobs, income, inflation — after eight years of recession or rickety growth, said Bruno Brandao, executive director of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International in Brazil.
“In 2018, corruption was without a doubt the most important issue in the electoral process,” Brandao said. “Today, the issue doesn’t have the same prominence among voter concerns.”
And Curitiba lost prominence. Before the so-called Car Wash investigation that landed da Silva and other powerful figures behind bars, the relatively young city, populated largely by transplants, offered little in the way of identity, according to Nelson Rosario de Souza, a sociologist at the Federal University of Parana. . Car Wash put Curitiba on the map. The multi-year investigation, and Moro, struck fear into misguided politicians and executives previously thought to be untouchable.
“It jolted the collective imagination, like, ‘We’re finally in the spotlight and apparently for something positive. We’re going to clean up Brazil,'” de Souza said.
Brazilians savored the innumerable stages of Car Wash as if they were episodes of a juicy soap opera. Movies were made. Moro’s face appeared in magazines and was entertained in restaurants in Curitiba; people cheered when he walked in and sent champagne. A bona fide hero.
“You drove through Curitiba and five or six out of 10 cars had stickers supporting Car Wash. Very few people in Curitiba dared to criticize him,” said Luis Carlos Rocha, da Silva’s lawyer at the time.
After Moro sentenced da Silva to almost 10 years in prison, Rocha visited him every day of the week on the fourth floor of the Federal Police headquarters in Curitiba. For 580 days, he was confined to a 160 square foot (approximately 15 square meter) room. Outside, hundreds of supporters held a permanent vigil demanding his release.
Moro’s cheerleaders, meanwhile, set up in front of their offices. A huge inflatable Superman with Moro’s head joined the protesters whose T-shirts read “República de Curitiba,” a slogan adopted from da Silva’s complaint that the city seemed to observe its own laws.
Da Silva’s convictions allowed the far-right Bolsonaro to win the 2018 race. In Paraná, a traditional bastion of the right, his anti-corruption speech resonated and received twice as many votes as his opponent. He then appointed Moro minister of justice.
But Moro overestimated how far his anti-corruption influence could take him, said Emerson Cervi, a political scientist at the Federal University of Paraná. Moro resigned in 2020 before implementing his much-touted plan, alleging that Bolsonaro was seeking to interfere with the Federal Police. And Bolsonaro’s social media warriors shot the apostate.
“He thought he was going to be revered, as if he were a judge in court again, but other politicians understood that he was just a beginner,” Cervi said.
The Supreme Court then ruled that Moro had been biased against da Silva by colluding with prosecutors to secure a conviction, according to a trove of messages obtained by The Intercept Brasil. Moro pursued a “power project, which required politically delegitimizing the Workers’ Party and, especially, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva,” Judge Gilmar Mendes said last year.
With his convictions overturned, Da Silva, known universally as Lula, was cleared for a presidential candidacy, and Moro prepared his own. Moro’s was a dank firecracker, so he sought a Senate candidacy in powerful Sao Paulo, which also failed. He chose to run in his home state, extolling the virtues of Car Wash on an anti-Lula platform, and last month’s polls showed him far behind.
In a brief interview in Curitiba, Moro dismissed minor concerns about corruption as “circumstantial.”
“Corruption will always be an issue in elections, maybe at times it’s not the main issue,” he told The Associated Press. “Corruption rooted within Brazilian democracy, within the public sector, is something that ends up breaking our democracy.”
“Lula is a symbol of impunity,” he added.
Local polls showed some late gains for Moro, said Arilton Freres, director of the Curitiba-based Instituto Opini├úo. That could be due to revived sentiment against da Silva, fueled by polls showing he could win on Sunday without a runoff against Bolsonaro.
People may also care less about corruption given investigations into Bolsonaro’s family members, he added.
“Voters now think, ‘If I still need to vote for someone who is corrupt, then I’m going to focus on what affects me the most, and that’s the economy,'” Freres said.
The biggest rally in Curitiba this year was for da Silva. His supporters were concerned about the turnout given pro-Bolsonaro, pro-Moro leanings, but police estimated 12,000 people turned out. The spirited event was turned into a campaign video titled “Lula in the arms of the people of Curitiba,” showing people reaching for any part of his body they could grab.
Da Silva, who cited his time in jail to draw comparisons to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd there was a bonus: his romance with Paraná native Rosangela Silva, nicknamed Janja. He has attributed the death of his first wife 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 learn to love Curitiba, because it was here, in prison, that I met Janja, and it was here that we decided to get married.”
And he recognized those who held the 580-day vigil: “Thank you, Curitiba, for everything you did for me and for Brazil.”
On Twitter, Moro called the demonstration “incredible” and added that it reflected a legal system that allows the corrupt to walk. Two weeks later, he addressed a crowd of about 100 people at a private club in Curitiba and assured them that “many lies have been told about Car Wash.” Dozens of people then enthusiastically took photos with the famous former judge.
One of his voters, Juliane Morvan, said that Curitiba still feels aggrieved by da Silva’s release, although she criticized Moro for “evading certain laws to force Lula’s imprisonment.”
“I agree with his (Moro’s) morals and ethics and, in general, he did more good things than bad,” Morvan, 28, said near the Federal Police building. “I want to give him the opportunity to see what he wants to do.”
That is not the resounding adulation that Moro once enjoyed.
Beto Simonetti, president of Brazil’s bar association, said that if Moro does not win his seat in the Senate, with the special legal treatment the position affords him, he will become “an even easier target” for the demands of those whom he sentenced accusing him of partiality.
Nothing would please Maite Ritz more.
She is the director of the Car Wash Museum, a virtual space that presents a very critical look at the legality of the investigation. Da Silva’s rally celebrated the community that local leftists created, Ritz said. Her victory, and Moro’s downfall, would be a vindication.
“In 2018 I didn’t have the courage to go out in the street with a Lula shirt,” he said. “Now I wear it proudly.”
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.