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Judge Behind Brazil's Operation 'Car Wash' Cleans Up Corruption


Now let's meet a man charged with cleaning up corruption - in fact, the biggest corruption problem in the history of Brazil. The man's name is Sergio Moro. He is a judge. He's tried many top politicians and executives and he sent many to jail, all part of an operation known as Car Wash. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A few years ago, Sergio Moro was just another federal judge. He wasn't at all famous. These days, Brazilians wear T-shirts bearing his name. Some want Moro to run for president.


REEVES: We're at a ceremony in the city of Sao Paolo in Brazil. Moro's receiving a top award from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The same award was once given to Mother Teresa.


JOHN JENKINS: It's a great pleasure of mine to return to this great country.

REEVES: That's Notre Dame's president, Reverend John Jenkins.


JENKINS: As a result of Dr. Moro and his team's good work, Brazil, instead of being infamous for corruption, has become a beacon for the rest of the hemisphere on how to fight it.

REEVES: Corruption has plagued Brazil for centuries. The most powerful were rarely held to account. Operation Car Wash, known here as Lava Jato, has changed all that. The three-year investigations unearthed the web of corruption in which top politicians worked with big business in a kickbacks-for-contract scam extending across Latin America. As he accepts the award, Moro suggests his job's nearly done.


SERGIO MORO: Today, maybe the Lava Jato operation in Curitiba is coming to an end.

REEVES: Other Brazilian judges are taking up the anti-corruption campaign, he says.


MORO: We will never surrender to corruption. The age of our robber barons is ending.

REEVES: Robber barons called to account by Moro and the Car Wash team were at the heart of Brazil's government.

MALU GASPER: Think about all closest assistants of Donald Trump and Barack Obama being arrested at the same time for bribery, racketeering, organized crime.

REEVES: Malu Gasper is a journalist with Brazil's Piaui Magazine. She's been covering Car Wash from the start.

GASPER: We have senators arrested. The speaker of the house is in jail. The former finance minister is in jail. The owner of the biggest construction company is in jail.

REEVES: Judge Moro convicted one of the giants of Brazil's recent history. He sentenced Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who's been president twice, to nearly 10 years in prison for corruption. Lula, as he's known, remains free pending appeal. He's fighting seven other charges and telling supporters he's done nothing wrong.


LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Through interpreter) I know that I'm in a jam. Every day there's a court case. I don't even want Moro to absolve me. I only want him to apologize.

REEVES: Lula leads the polls for next year's presidential elections. If he's barred from running, the race is wide open. Brazil could be in for a period of political upheaval. A nationalist regarded by many as extreme, Jair Bolsanaro, is number two in the polls. Speaking to journalists, Moro avoids talking about Lula.


MORO: What happen outside the court is not of my concern.

REEVES: Moro, who's 45, seems shy and low-key. That doesn't stop pollsters putting him on the list of possibles for president.


MORO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "They're wasting their time - not going to happen," says Moro. He admits he is thinking of a change without giving details.


MORO: I'm a little bit tired. It has been a hard work.


REEVES: Whatever Moro does, his fame won't fade anytime soon. A movie's just out in Brazil about Car Wash. It's called "Policia Federal: A Lei E Para Todos" - "Federal Police: The Law's For Everyone."


REEVES: Journalist Malu Gasper says Moro was at the premiere.

GASPER: They had this red carpet, and he appeared with his wife and the other judge from Rio. He gave interviews. He took photos. He was very proud of it. He was enjoying himself very much.

REEVES: The movie's a big hit, says Gasper.

GASPER: I think it's because in the end, the good people win.

REEVES: Brazilians in this movie house in Rio seem to agree. Watching the story of his nation's corrupt leaders finally getting sent to prison gives moviegoer Marcello Peregrino...

MARCELLO PEREGRINO: Hope, definitely hope that we can do things in a good way.

REEVES: Think things are going to change?

PEREGRINO: Maybe. It's a start.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "CITY JEWELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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