SAO PAULO, Brazil — In a country where less than 10% of prison inmates have finished high school, several major politicians and officials dealing with public funds are now behind bars in a corruption case.
After a long-running prosecution, the imprisonments have sent shock waves across the political and legal systems of a nation where widespread political corruption has long been a given but where dangerous prisons are usually reserved for the poor.
"The population has begun to believe that powerful people can be punished too," Sao Paulo criminal attorney Rafael Tucherman said last week. "But the system continues to be the same."
Eleven officials and government contractors, including the chief of staff of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, turned themselves in this month to serve sentences doled out in the so-called mensalao scandal, Portuguese for "big monthly payment." The case, which has wended its way through the legal system since 2005, involves a scheme to funnel money to minor parties supporting the government coalition. Twenty-five defendants were convicted for their roles in the scandal.
Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest-circulation newspaper, carried a front-page photo of the dilapidated lockup where the politicians are now housed. Veja, an influential right-wing magazine, stamped the headline "A Lesson for the Corrupt" over pictures of the men behind bars. Last year, when the sentences were handed out, Veja said Brazil was "rediscovering the difference between right and wrong."
The sentences of 13 others who were convicted have yet to begin. The other defendant, banker Henrique Pizzolato, fled to Italy and remains free.
Of more than 500,000 imprisoned Brazilians, 92% did not finish high school and only 0.4% graduated from a college. In the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions study, which lists nations from least to most corrupt, Brazil ranked 69th, tied with Macedonia and South Africa.
Experts say the mensalao prison terms are at best a small step toward resolving Brazil's culture of political corruption and impunity for the powerful. Investigation procedures here are often inadequate, and less than 10% of crimes are solved by police and a suspect brought to trial, attorney Tucherman said. Defendants with skilled lawyers tend to successfully navigate the system compared with those with little means.
"The poor, those without resources, aren't able to mount a full defense," said Tucherman.
The mensalao case has been highly politicized, as it includes high-ranking members of the left-leaning Workers' Party, which has ruled Brazil since 2003 after running on an anti-corruption platform. The popular Lula stayed above the scandal and was reelected in 2006 after it broke. Workers' Party candidate Dilma Rousseff easily won the 2010 election to succeed him as president.
Party supporters say the Supreme Court was under pressure from the nation's predominantly right-leaning news media that have consistently opposed the party. As Brazil underwent its first major political corruption trial since the 1988 ratification of a constitution, Supreme Court President Joaquim Barbosa has become a household name, and some now support him for president, an office he said he does not seek.
"The mensalao is [a practice] that came from the previous governments," said Laurindo Leal Filho, a professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo. "But after losing power, the opposition has attempted to use the case in elections, and is using it now to try build a candidate" to defeat Rousseff, who faces reelection next October.
There is still the chance of further appeals, and despite admitting some illegalities, the defendants claim they can prove that no public money was stolen.
The corruption case is one of several that have concluded this year. A congressman from a sparsely populated rural state was convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned.
Those involved in another mensalao case dating to 1998 may face trial early next year.
"Many here still see the Brazilian government as a way to get rich," Leal Filho said. "Many politicians are still very assured that [the mensalao] was an isolated case, and they can continue to get away with what they want."
"We aren't seeing a paradigm shift, but at least there's been a minimum amount of accountability," said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. "But it's an important symbolic step."
Bevins is a special correspondent.