Amid Nationwide Protests, Brazil's Congress Considers "Impunity Amendment"

By Rachel Glickhouse

Brazilians have taken to the streets to rally against a variety of issues, including corruption. Meanwhile, legislators will vote on a bill to take investigative powers away from public prosecutors’ offices.

As Brazilians demonstrate against a rise in bus fares and voice a range of grievances—including corruption—the country’s Congress is considering a bill dubbed “the impunity amendment.” In what some call a setback for combatting corruption and organized crime, the Chamber of Deputies will vote on a constitutional amendment PEC 37, which aims to defang Brazil’s Ministérios Públicos, or public prosecutors’ offices on the state and federal levels. The legislation would prevent these offices from investigating crimes, such as wrongdoing by public officials, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking. Instead, investigative responsibilities would be left to the federal and civil police. A committee in the Chamber of Deputies in November passed the amendment, and the bill will be introduced on the floor on June 26.

In Brazil, public prosecutors have investigated important cases, ranging from corruption to murder to drug trafficking. One of the prime examples was the mensalão, one of the largest corruption trials in the country’s history that ended last year in convictions of 25 people. Public prosecutors also investigated a major homicide case: that of Celso Daniel, mayor of Santo André, a municipality in the greater São Paulo metropolitan area. Daniel was assassinated in 2002; the civil police and federal police determined that it was a murder, but public prosecutors determined hit men carried out the killing. Six people have since been convicted in the case. This month—in an operation with the Brazilian federal police; the U.S. Drug Administration; and law enforcement from Colombia, Portugal, Spain, and Uruguay—public prosecutors charged 17 people with drug trafficking, money laundering, and associated crimes. Smugglers had shipped cocaine in bags of ice with fish exports from Brazil.

Opponents of the amendment say it could lead to more impunity. In December, São Paulo’s Attorney General Márcio Elias Rosa told Folha de São Paulo that those in favor of the amendment are not concerned about fighting corruption. “It’s a flawed, corporatist interest [with] a disproportionate desire for impunity on the part of some very powerful people in strategic positions,” he said. An editorial for Congresso em Foco, a news site about Brazil’s Congress, points out that the civil police are already overloaded on a daily basis with urban crime cases, like muggings and homicides. It could also impact transnational crime investigations. “In a globalized world, crime knows no borders,” said Roberto Gurgel, Brazil’s federal attorney general. “That’s why if the public prosecutor’s office in a country is weakened, criminal prosecution…is weakened globally.” The amendment would also go against global norms: only Kenya, Uganda, and Indonesia give exclusive investigative powers to the police, wrote one of Brazil’s regional attorney generals, Alexandre Camanho.

However, those in favor of the legislation believe it will allow law enforcement to function better. The National Association of Federal Policemen supports the amendment, which it believes will strengthen the police force as a whole by centralizing investigative responsibilities and making them more efficient. An April Estado de São Paulo editorial notes that “criminal investigations always were, by nature, a police activity. It doesn’t fall to the public prosecutors to investigate but rather to decide to open an investigation.” The bill’s author—Congressman Lourival Mendes, a former police officer—said the public prosecutors’ investigative powers are “unconstitutional and unfavorable to democracy.” He added that opposition to the bill is nothing more than “an unjustified, radicalized reaction.”