That high-level corruption is a serious problem in much of the world is no surprise. But when the Odebrecht case—a massive corruption scandal, possibly even the largest ever uncovered anywhere—burst onto the front pages of newspapers in nearly a dozen Latin American countries, it raised an important question: Is the uncovering and prosecution of major cases of graft a good sign or a bad one? Is it evidence that corruption is even more widespread than anyone knew and becoming worse? Or is it proof that the age of endemic corruption is coming to an end?
The wrongdoing at Odebrecht, a Brazil-based engineering conglomerate that builds large-scale infrastructure projects, first came to the attention of Brazilian prosecutors back in 2014, as part of the investigation into corruption at Petrobras in the now infamous “Lava Jato,” or car wash, case. Details emerged gradually, but the scandal soon took on gargantuan proportions, until the company itself approached the U.S. Department of Justice seeking to work out a global plea deal.
U.S. officials had jurisdiction because of the company’s bank accounts in the U.S., and prosecutors were able used the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to negotiate the historic settlement. But by the time Washington became involved, Brazilian authorities had already dug up enough incriminating evidence to send the company’s chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, to prison for 19 years. Meanwhile, the scandal was rapidly spreading, which is why the company was eager to reach a settlement.