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Livia Lakomy: Sérgio Moro

The most loved and hated Brazilian judge and why he matters to Brazil's future.

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Image taken by Marcos Oliveira/Agência Senado.

By Livia Lakomy

Between the Zika virus, worries about the impeding Olympic Games, and all the other political and economic turmoil, it’s hard to read anything positive about Brazil in the international media. Hard, but not impossible. This year, Fortune magazine chose federal judge Sérgio Fernando Moro as the world’s 13th greatest leader, the only Brazilian to make the list. He is perhaps the least known leader in this power-fest list that includes Jeff Bezos, Pope Francis and John Legend. When asked about receiving such an honor, he quipped: “At least I’m ahead of Bono.” Indeed, the U2 singer known to millions of fans around the world placed fourteenth.

Sérgio Moro’s curriculum vitae includes studying at Harvard, earning a PhD, becoming a federal judge, and having been my law professor at the peripheral (even in Brazil) Federal University of Paraná. If you believe the hype, he is also the man who can either save or destroy Brazil – a hero or villain according to each person’s political views. Moro is a man who has caused family feuds, ended Facebook friendships, and inspired millions to take the streets to both support and condemn his actions as a federal judge. Even Donald Trump has nothing on Sérgio Moro when it comes to Brazilian social media, and Moro doesn’t even have a Twitter account.

MAKING (SOME) SENSE OF THE CHAOS IN BRAZILIAN POLITICS

Brazil hasn’t been in such economic and political turmoil since 1992, when Congress impeached former President Fernando Collor with overwhelming support by citizens across the country. This year, things are heading in a similar direction.

Like Judge Sérgio Moro, the President, Dilma Rousseff, who is temporarily out of a job while Congress decides her fate, was also named in a different Fortune magazine list, as the world’s most disappointing leader. Rousseff is accused of covering budget shortfalls, her cabinet is falling apart because of internal bickering, and key members of her political party are under investigation for the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history. Even her mentor – some say her “creator” – former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, once one of the most beloved and popular politicians in the world (according to even Barack Obama, who once said of him: “that’s my man”) seems to be complicit.

Twenty-five years after president Collor was ousted, Brazilian Congress is once again discussing impeachment procedures. and representatives have gone as far as voting for Rousseff to be temporarily removed from office while the impeachment charges are being decided. Unlike 1992, however, the nation is not united, but bitterly divided in this cause which some – including Dilma herself – are calling a disguised coup. In Brazil,, the president and vice-president are elected on the same ticket, they don’t necessarily have to belong to the same party. Dilma’s vice-president, Michel Temer, who is now Brazil’s interim president, has been accused by Dilma and her party of maneuvers worthy of House of Card’s Frank Underwood. In a few days, he already made substantial changes in the cabinet and promised to change many policies. But whether you are for or against Dilma, for or against the impeachment, the name that keeps coming up in conversation is that of federal judge Sérgio Fernando Moro. Moro is to blame. Moro is to praise. Moro is the new “man.”

Meanwhile, Moro keeps mostly to himself and keeps working – to what end and whether its heroism or villainy depends on your own political views.

Sérgio Fernando Moro is the figure head behind “Operation Car Wash,” an investigation into a money laundering scheme that is suspected to have moved over ten billions reais (or, in American terms, over 2.5 billion dollars) for illegal purposes. The operation started small, in March of 2014, but has continuously expanded for over two years to include allegations of corruption, bribery and trafficking of influence at the higher echelons of government. It’s been said to be the biggest investigation into corruption in Brazilian history, and that’s saying something. The national company for oil, Petrobrás, is at the heart of these investigations, but there are enough warrants to go around for most political parties and some giant private construction firms.

In theory, “Car Wash” is a separate monster from Dilma Rousseff’s budgetary and impeachment troubles and Michel Temer’s interim presidency. In real life (and politics) they have blended together and it’s getting harder and harder to separate the president’s fate from the operation’s outcome, especially when the investigation seems to be progressing into a who’s who in most every political party in the country.

One would think this investigation would please Brazilians as a whole but, according to Moro’s many critics, the judge is not a crusader for justice. In their view, he is one of the bad guys himself, using his position to gain power – or keeps those he support in power – in the same manner as the people he investigates, following an agenda that has nothing to do with blind justice. These detractors, accuse Moro of bias against Dilma’s left-wing, administration, of being a puppet of the “big media,” a trigger-happy judge who is overtly partial to the prosecution and prone to commit judicial excesses and even leaking documents in pursuit of a political agenda. On the other hand, those who praise him point out at most politicians fear of that “Car Wash” might point to them next. Indeed, it’s hard to predict what will happen in the “Car Wash,” who it might target or if the government will “allow” it to go on as it has been – both Dilma’s and Michel Temer’s administrations have been accused of trying to put an end to it.

While the politics play out, Brazil not only falls apart, but is also torn apart by these opposing factions. Meanwhile, Moro keeps mostly to himself and keeps working – to what end and whether its heroism or villainy depends on your own political views.

Ironically, Lula had famously said in 1988 that, while a poor man who steals goes to jail, “when a rich man steals he becomes a judge.”

Given all the attention Moro has been receiving, it’s almost easy to forget that there are many people behind “Operation Car Wash”, including investigative and prosecuting teams that are doing the brunt of the work in digging up the mountains of dirt in Brazilian politics. Sérgio Moro, however, is the man behind the decisions that make headlines, and was thus cast in major role, playing the part of a vigilante who could, in a real-life plot twist, have a hidden agenda and go rogue.

The most controversial of his decisions involves former president Lula. First, the retired politician was taken into custody on March 4 and questioned about his role in the corruption and possible illicit enrichment after leaving office. Rumors soon started circulating that he might soon be arrested, which caused popular uproar among his staunch supporters.

On Sunday, March 13, over 3 million people took to the streets in 256 cities to protest against Lula, Dilma, and the current government. The situation seemed dire, but it managed to get worse: a few days after the protest, Moro authorized the release of Lula’s phone calls, recorded while the former president was being investigated. One particular call involved current president Dilma. In this particular conversation, it appears she is rushing to send him official documents appointing him as minister, and thus giving him immediate legal protection and taking him away from Moro’s jurisdiction. While this seemed like damning evidence that Lula and Dilma had something to hide, there was a catch: the call had been recorded some hours after the warrant to investigate Lula had expired. In addition to that, it involved someone (the sitting president) who did have special legal protection. The legality of these audios and the decision to make them public are yet to be decided by the Supreme Court, but the damage of their release was already done and it sparked impromptu protests around the country on both sides of the political spectrum.

For protests, his fans print cardboard cutouts of him so they can pretend to take selfies with their hero. The real Moro does not give many interviews and, when he does, his style is laconic.

When, Lula was indeed appointed minister, his opposition was quick to protest in the courts, and the former president didn’t last a morning in his new position. His nomination is now also pending a Supreme Court decision. Ironically, Lula had famously said in 1988 that, while a poor man who steals goes to jail, “when a rich man steals he becomes a judge.”

Regardless of the outcome of these decisions and of “Operation Car Wash” as a whole, Moro has already made history – but what historians will say is still unclear. Never has a magistrate been so loved and hated, and never have boring judicial decisions caused so much furor among the Brazilian population. He was sort of like that as a teacher, too: both boring and incendiary.

THE MAN BEHIND THE CARDBOARD MASK

What we know about Sérgio Moro from the media is this: he is forty-three years old, married, has two daughters, at one point attended a country music festival, and commonly receives impromptu rounds of applause when he goes to a restaurant or a supermarket. For protests, his fans print cardboard cutouts of him so they can pretend to take selfies with their hero. The real Moro does not give many interviews and, when he does, his style is laconic.

Many of the pieces written about him make it a point to mention that he eschews personal security, preferring to drive his own car and moving about freely in spite of working a job that puts him in constant risk of retaliation by some dangerous people. He lives and works in the southern city of Curitiba, to the chagrin of most big-media vehicles, which have headquarters in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro or the capital city of Brasília. A man of simple habits who also happens to have studied at Harvard Law School and taken part in instruction programs on money laundering organized by the US State Department (“Is he CIA?” ask some of his more outlandish opponents). He also has a PhD from my alma mater, the Federal University of Paraná, where he teaches.

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Image taken by Marcos Oliveira/Agência Senado.

This is what I can tell you about Sérgio Moro as a professor: he was always on time and never ended class early, which is more than I can say for 98 percent of the other teachers at a federally funded university. He has recently been the subject of rumors that he is missing classes and arriving late due to his ever-increasing workload and celebrity. The university director has denied these rumors, and there’s no reason why he would lie, since he and Moro famously dislike each other. At one point, before “Operation Car Wash” had begun, Moro asked that all his classes be scheduled for the same day, so he could travel to Brasília during the rest of the week, to take part in an earlier money laundering case being judged by the Supreme Court. His request was denied and ended up with him suing the university. He lost the suit. We had his class on Friday evenings, a thankless time of the week to learn criminal procedure..

There was another rumor in my law school days that two of the students, burly guys in suits who spent every class sitting in the back reading newspapers, were actually his bodyguards, but nobody really knew for sure. “Operation Car Wash” wasn’t a thing back then, and Moro wasn’t yet a celebrity, though he had taken part in big white-collar-crime cases. Given the current political climate, he probably should be walking around with bodyguards right now. In fact, he could have been a bodyguard himself, if he wanted to, he is surely intimidating enough for the job.

He seemed to have been designed with a ruler, all straight angles (his chin could be cast on Batman, I think, but he would lack charm as Bruce Wayne). This is yet another way he differs from Lula, who is more aptly cast as a gray haired and bearded teddy bear – one who is both charismatic and divisive.
Moro graded us fairly – which meant most of us barely passed his course. He was a stickler for rules. Still, we appreciated his commitment and obvious knowledge and chose him as one of the teachers we would honor at our graduation. Our class president told him this news after one of his lectures, and presented him with a bottle of wine as a thank-you gift. Moro accepted the honor stiffly, then proceeded to read the label on the wine bottle. His expression in judging the vintage must have been similar to the one he had while grading my papers.

By the time Moro became my criminal procedure law professor, I was merely punching the clock before I graduated and moved on to a career in freelance journalism. A classmate once mentioned that I should probably receive a degree in literature instead of law, since I spent most of my time reading books that had nothing to do with the syllabi. That was only partly true: during Moro’s class I did get to read Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.” Bugliosi was the criminal prosecutor who convicted Charles Manson, so reading his books was at least somewhat pertinent to class.

My interest in reading about the law rather than practicing it might be the reason why, five years after graduation, the one thing Moro said in class that still sticks with me is that we should all read “Excellent Cadavers,” a book by Alexander Stille on the fight against mob and corruption in Sicily and Italy. It details the operation “Mani Polute,” or “Clean Hands,” the judicial investigation that changed the course of Italian political history in the 1990s. In hindsight, it’s impossible not to see Moro’s literary tastes as a foreshadowing of what he would do during “Car Wash.”

The book’s excellent title stuck in my mind and, when Moro started appearing on the news two years after my graduation, I bought a used copy, hoping that reading it might give some insight into the man who had recommended it, and surprised at how much this turned out to be true.

“Excellent Cadavers” presents us with a hero, Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, whose successful and illustrious life and career ends in 1992, in an a mob-ordained explosion that blew up part of a highway and was strong enough to be picked up by earthquake monitors. It was a death foretold, but at least Falcone and his colleagues had his victories against the mafia before they were taken down, both by force and by the paralyzing use of bureaucracy to slow and dismantle the operation. This real-life epic (which has been turned into a movie and documentary) is a blood bath, one of those Shakespearean tragedies where things resolve themselves by everyone involved getting killed. To read this book in the context of what is happening in Brazil has been a recipe for political nightmares.

As a writer, I have a tendency to give things more meaning than they actually embody. Doesn’t it seem too neat, that one of the few things I remember about this man’s class is the book he suggested? A book about a prosecutor who ends up dead after investigating and bringing to justice some very high-profile figures?
Could Sérgio Moro, with his comic-book Batman chin and his professed loved for justice, be modeling himself after Falcone, a man whose work he admired? That seems too grim to contemplate, considering how things ended for Falcone, but not completely out of character.

It’s almost as bad as if, instead of a guy like the Italian magistrate, he ended up being something like Batman super villain Harvey “Two Face” Dent. Oh, sure, Harvey Dent had his glory days as Gotham City’s district attorney before he changed colors and turned to the bad side, right? And this possible villainy is often spouted by Moro’s political enemies, the victims of his warrants, the subjects of his operations. Power corrupts. In fact, those who cast him as villain would like nothing more than to have him prove himself a “Two Face,” a Jekyll & Hyde, a hypocrite. Unfortunately, in Brazil, we’ve probably had more “Two Faces” than Giovanni Falcones in our past.

For his part, Moro seems to at least be aware of how his narrative is being played, the savior vs. villain of his public persona. Recently, he has even quoted Peter Parker/Spider Man in a reference to both himself and the influential figures he now investigates: with great power comes great responsibility.

For myself and my country, I hope Sérgio Moro ends up being Sérgio Moro, and neither Falcone or Harvey Dent, and that his career turns out to be neither heroic tragedy or duplicitous villainy. If I could write the story myself, I would have Moro successfully bring criminals to justice in “Operation Car Wash,” disregarding their political leanings or party affiliations. I would have Moro continue his work as judge and teacher, boring (bad) students like me to near-catatonia during his lectures in criminal procedure law – while at the same time inspiring the good pupils who will go on to make Brazil less corrupt. I would have Moro no longer be a celebrity – let Bono have that 13th spot on Fortune’s greatest leaders list! No heroes, no villains. Just plain civil servants doing their job.

Livia Lakomy is a Brazilian writer and translator. She is at work on a book about Brazilian pop culture and politics and is translating authors from her hometown into English for Wakefield Press. Her work can be found online at Howler, The Toast, Asymptote, and Noize Brazil.

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