The Smoking Gun of U.S. Involvement in Lava Jato

By Bryan Pitts.

Ever since the Obama administration’s silence in 2016 when Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was removed in a legally-spurious impeachment that constituted a congressional coup, the question of the role of the United States in that process has been the elephant in the room.

Even a casual student of history knows that the U.S. has seldom hesitated to attempt to overthrow troublesome Latin American governments. Guatemala’s Arbenz in 1954, Brazil’s Goulart in 1964, Chile’s Allende in 1973, Panama’s Noriega in 1989, Venezuela’s Chávez in 2002 – the list goes on.

Since this time there were no American marines landing in Rio, no American ambassadors publicly cheerleading for the coup, no premature recognition by Washington of post-coup governments, it was hard to see what shape U.S. involvement might be taking. Since 2016 this question has come into sharper focus, and this week has added another huge piece to the puzzle, perhaps the smoking gun.

Last night The Intercept published the fifth segment of its bombshell report on unethical and possibly illegal collaboration between former federal judge and current Minister of Justice and Public Safety Sérgio Moro and federal prosecutor Delton Dallagnol. Dallagnol was the chief prosecutor for Operation Lava Jato, the sweeping anti-corruption probe that has swept up hundreds of politicians in Brazil and abroad; Moro was the judge who was to decide the cases. Their coordination went as far as Moro contacting Dallagnol to suggest possible witnesses he could interview to bolster his cases.

Unlike the second, third, and fourth segments, which analyzed specific themes of the conversations between the two, as well as group chats including additional members of the Lava Jato team, this fifth installment provided extensive excerpts from the hacked conversations (with personal material, as well as information related to pending legal cases, redacted).

Buried in these chats was an offhand comment Dallagnol made to Moro on August 31, 2016 that provides some of the strongest evidence to date of the involvement of the United States (most likely the Department of Justice) in Lava-Jato. Here is the full text:

Moro – 18:44:08 – Hasn’t it been a long time without an operation?

Dallagnol – 20:05:32 – It has. The problem is that these operations involve the same people [i.e., investigators or judges] who have the accusation against [former president Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva]. We decided to postpone everything until this accusation is released, except for the op[eration involving] Tacla, because there`s a risk that he will flee, but it depends on our articulação (links, negotiations, joint efforts) with the Americans (emphasis added).

Dallagnol – 20:05:45 – (Which is in the works)

Dallagnol – 20:05:59 – We are scheduled to release the accusation on [September] 14.

In other words, Moro was concerned that there had not been another operation (i.e., a new phase of the investigation that might include raids on suspects’ homes or businesses, charges, warrants, or arrests) in a while. Dallagnol responded that this was because the people responsible for the next operation were also working on an accusation against Lula, so they had decided to prioritize that and put the next operation on the back burner, but that it depended on coming to an articulação with the Americans.

What the “it” (ela) refers to is unclear. Grammatically, it could be the accusation against Lula, the postponement of the next operation, or the execution of the pending operation against Odebrecht lawyer Rodrigo Tacla Duran. The most likely is that it refers to the postponement of the next operation, based on the structure of the sentence, with the two dependent clauses in the middle. “We decided to postpone everything until the accusation is released – except for the operation Tacla, because there’s a risk he might flee – but it depends on our articulação with the Americans.”

The obvious question is the meaning of the word “articulação,” most literally translated as “articulation.” The Michaelis dictionary, one of the top dictionaries of Brazilian Portuguese, gives 17 possible meanings for articulação and 11 for the related verb articular. At its most basic level, the word means “to come together, to tie together, to join.” So the elbow joint is an articulação. The place where the stem of a leaf attaches to a branch is an articulação. The hinge where a pocketknife folds is an articulação.

So when Dallagnol tells Moro that decisions on how to proceed require an articulação with the Americans, he means a point of connection, a tying together, or, to put it more directly, making a deal. The importance of this remark cannot be overstated. A leading federal prosecutor stated matter-of-factly to a federal judge who is now Minister of Justice that key decisions about a Brazilian investigation (into Brazilian citizens, who may have stolen Brazilian tax dollars) could only proceed when some sort of an agreement was reached with the Americans.

By itself this statement could mean almost anything. But when placed alongside other evidence that has emerged, we gain a better idea of its meaning and significance.

There was the 2009 cable from the U.S. embassy detailing a conference held for Brazilian officials on how to prosecute money laundering, at which Moro was a featured speaker. There was the revelation in 2013, based on Edward Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald (who would go on to found The Intercept) that the NSA was spying on world leaders and foreign businesses, including Brazil’s Rousseff and Petrobrás, the state oil company. And in 2017 acting assistant attorney general Kenneth Blanco admitted that the Department of Justice had collaborated with Brazilian prosecutors on Lula’s conviction.

Two of these three revelations, like Dallagnol’s comment, came from exchanges or plans that were never supposed to become public. From the point of view or a journalist or a historian, they constitute the highest type of evidence – the things people say or do when they think no one is listening.

The previous sources, however, all came from U.S. sources. Dallagnol’s comment is different because it is the first to show that key Brazilian actors saw Lava Jato as a collaborative effort with “the Americans.”

Still unknown is precisely who these Americans were, what they might have wanted from Brazil, and what agreements Dallagnol’s deal might have entailed. But the evidence that the U.S. government was involved in some way with Lava Jato and, by extension, the impeachment of Dilma and imprisonment and electoral disqualification of Lula is compelling and can no longer be ignored.

Brasil Wire has been the only English-language media outlet to consistently point to U.S. involvement since the earliest days of the coup. We were laughed at as conspiracy theorists, accused of denying Brazilians their “agency” by blaming the U.S. for Brazil’s woes.

Well, who’s laughing now?


By Bryan Pitts

Bryan Pitts is assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. His book, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil's Military Dictatorship, was published in 2023 by University of California Press.