The Operation Car Wash, also known as Lava Jato, provides a compelling background for analysing the promises and perils of the fight against corruption. It presents an exemplary use of punitive actions by prosecuting corrupt politicians and business leaders – frying the ‘biggest fish’ – which reveal that malfeasances are being sanctioned, and thus reducing impunity. However, evidence suggests that holding corrupt elites accountable may have unforeseen consequences.
By presenting the Peruvian case – which acted promptly launching a national referendum, removing politically-motivated members of the judiciary and indicting four former presidents, the leader of the opposition party and various businesspeople – I argue that these actions are not merely technical and apolitical as the international anti-corruption advances. It could severely hinder its legitimacy or even have adverse consequences. To some extent, it may reach a sort of ‘tipping point’ in which cynical attitudes and the perceived abuse of punitive populism may undermine vertical accountability, and eventually leading to elect populist candidates such as Berlusconi after Mani Pulite in Italy or Bolsonaro during Lava Jato in Brazil.
This paper sheds light on the ownership and instrumentality of anti-corruption by political elites and the international community in order to reflect on which actors shape the agenda and who measures what. Understanding the dynamics of this emblematic case in the ‘Global South’ critically examines the universal applicability of policy prescriptions which will result in more context-sensitive, politically engaged anti-corruption initiatives.