Subterranean Learning and Jurisprudential Changes: The Criminalization of Corruption on the Ground

Luiz Vilaça, Graduate Student

In contexts where high-level corruption is widespread, why would political elites invest in building state capacity to fight corruption? Some studies suggest this happens when politicians are pressured by social movements, while others focus on the election of new political leaders who are committed to fighting corruption. Building on theories about gradual institutional change, this paper develops a new explanation that focuses on the contingency of the policy process: bills can be repurposed and produce results that initial proponents did not anticipate. I focus on the case of Brazil, where politicians passed numerous decrees and bills that empowered and gave new legal tools to investigative bureaucracies only to become victims of prosecution years later. Drawing on 130 original interviews with prosecutors, politicians, and judges, I show that politicians made initiatives to fight corruption, because, at that time, these investments seemed innocuous. I argue that to understand why politicians fail to foresee the potential consequences of their actions to combat corruption, we need to examine how corruption becomes criminalized on the ground. Specifically, I show that investigative bureaucracies and courts can reshape the criminalization of corruption in ways that are unforeseen by political elites for two reasons: first, changes in the attention and capacity of investigators are often subterranean and therefore only visible to politicians – and to the public – once a new investigation is launched. Moreover, judges can make decisions that are temporally subsequent to politicians’ bills and that can increase the chances that charges against political corruption will result in convictions.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 221. State Violence and Illegal Markets