Millions of Brazilians Hate All Politicians, but They Love This Anti-Corruption Judge

Massive anti-government marches typically carry effigies of President Rousseff and boo opportunistic opposition leaders, who are often accused of more serious crimes. But angry protesters have a soft spot for one man — Judge Sergio Moro.
April 21, 2016, 4:15pm
Photo par Sebastiao Moreira/EPA

Brazil's deep political crisis — that seems likely to soon see a legislature full of allegedly corrupt politicians push President Dilma Rousseff out of office for window dressing the national accounts — is notably devoid of heroes. Except, perhaps, for one.

At the massive anti-government and anti-corruption demonstrations that brought millions to the streets last month, protesters carried effigies of Rousseff and booed at opportunistic opposition politicians seeking to milk the crisis.


But amid all the public's scorn for the Brazilian political elite there were flashes of a different kind of mood. "In Moro we Trust," was one of the most popular slogans of all.

The phrase referred to Sergio Moro, the young and brooding federal judge who has become a key player in the crisis due to his position at the head of the biggest corruption probe in Brazilian history.

That probe, known as Lava Jato, or Operation Car Wash, has recovered almost $3 billion in two years and put the famous judge's distinctive features on t-shirts and banners.

'This obscure judge, today a national celebrity, presents himself to the population as someone who is going to clean Brazil of corruption.'

The many-tentacled investigation has persuaded much of the Brazilian public that the whole government needs to go. Those protesting have conflated the Lava Jato operation with the impeachment campaign, blaming Rousseff for leading a government of crooks, even though the allegations that could see her booted out of office actually have nothing to do with the probe.

Moro said he was "touched" by the public backing he received during last month's protests, in a rare public statement. Normally he runs from the media, which, while it adds to the mystery, also fuels allegations that his crusade against allegedly crooked politicians, bankers, and businessmen is actually politically motivated.

"Sergio Moro created a new [questionable] form of investigation," Wadih Damous, a congressman from the governing Workers' Party, told foreign correspondents. "This obscure judge, today a national celebrity, presents himself to the population as someone who is going to clean Brazil of corruption."


Moro found himself leading the Lava Jato probe by chance, when the investigation landed in his court in his home state of Paraná, in southern Brazil, two years ago.

It began when a whistleblower revealed a decade-long alleged bribery scheme within the state-run oil company Petrobras, at a time when Rousseff was its chairwoman. Since then the probe has expanded, in large part because Moro has actively pursued suspects within the political elite, using plea bargains to secure testimonies and widen the net further.

Today Moro leads a dozen-strong task force of prosecutors who have implicated several senior politicians including the speaker of the congress, Eduardo Cunha, and the government's leader of senate, Delcidio do Amaral. Former president Inácio Lula da Silva has also been pulled in via a property he owns associated with a Lava Jato-linked company.

The Lava Jato probe even led police to raid the Brazilian offices of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, long before the company became famous as a hotbed of ethically dubious financial practices thanks to the massive Panama Papers leak earlier this month.

Related: Police Question Brazil's Ex-President Lula for Four Hours in Petrobras Scandal Probe

In the meantime, many have tried and failed to find out the story behind the man leading it all.

It is no secret that Moro is married with two children, and that his wife is also a lawyer, but that's as far as information about his private life goes. Meanwhile, reporters delving into his past have been stymied by his family and friends' refusal to answer even banal questions. The judge once even reportedly asked a colleague to take down an Instagram photo showing him wearing a red shirt and drinking a beer.


"He has really managed to create a curtain, a barrier for himself. His family simply refused to talk. It's like he's a candidate," said Renan Antunes de Oliveira who spent more than two months trying to profile Moro for the Diario do Centro do Mundo newspaper. "Not giving interviews to anyone hides what you really think. It wouldn't surprise me when he runs as a candidate."

'He was never one for staying in the classroom to talk, he wasn't a group leader, he wasn't a playboy.'

Moro grew up in Maringá, a city known for being well-organized, safe, and full of European immigrants. It is often described as an "island of excellence."

"He was always very studious, very discrete, very shy," said Anderson Furlan, a federal judge who studied with Moro at the State University of Maringá. "He was never one for staying in the classroom to talk, he wasn't a group leader, he wasn't a playboy, he had no scandals. Few people got close to him."

Furlan said that Moro modeled his solemn demeanor on the example set by his late father, with whom he shared his birthday. Dalton Moro was a geography professor and descendant of Italian immigrants who was said to have no clear political persuasion, but very clear and categorical moral values.

Furlan also recalled that Moro used to hide his political opinions.

"I don't even know who Sergio voted for," he said, insisting that Moro's vocation has always been to be a judge, not a politician. "When I'd ask him which congressman he voted for, he'd tell me he couldn't say, he voted in secret."

Related: The Impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff Now Seems All but Inevitable

Once Moro became a judge he began specializing in financial crime, he studied the Clean Hands operation into the Italian mafia in the 1990s. He wrote an article in which he concluded that such judicial investigations are only effective ways of combating corruption if they have public support.

Later he earned a reputation for going after money launderers when he led an inquiry into widespread tax evasion within provincial bank Banestado in the late 1990s. At the time, the case was said to be the largest money laundering probe in Brazil, investigating 1.5 million financial transactions by the bank in Paraná.


Moro was later recruited by supreme court minister Rosa Weber in 2012 to act in the judgement of Brazil's last major corruption scandal, the Mensalão. The vote-buying racket brought down several high-level politicians, including Lula's former chief of staff, after it was found that the Workers' Party paid deputies for supporting government initiatives.

Now, since becoming a household name thanks to Lava Jato, many of Moro's admirers hope he will run for elected office. His critics, meanwhile, allege this has been his intention all along and the carefully constructed public persona are all part of the plan.

The suspicions of political motives behind Lava Jato reached fever pitch after he leaked wiretapped phone conversations between Lula and Rousseff. The conversations appeared to suggest that Rousseff wanted to appoint Lula as her chief of staff in order to block investigations into alleged corruption

But whether Moro is planning to jump from the courts into politics or not, he is now much more than just a judge.

"Latin American people are very emotional. We tend to personify a lot of things," said Judge Marcos Josegrei da Silva, a federal judge in a neighboring district to Moro. "Moro has become a hope for people."

Watch: Impeaching President Rousseff: Brazil's Congress Votes

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