Odebrecht: The Biggest Corruption Case in History

The impact that Odebrecht has had on the business and political climates of many nations around the world is difficult to overstate. Unfortunately, the Brazilian construction company that grew into an international behemoth has become synonymous with bribery, corruption and scandal, prompting waves of protest around the globe. According to Business Insider, the company used various illicit practices to secure roughly 100 projects in 12 countries, ending up with about $3.3 billion in ill-gotten gains in the process. While that is a massive sum of money to be sure, Odebrecht's most lasting impact may be on the individual countries and communities affected by its activities; in the wake of revelations about corruption at the company, it has become clear that many important political and business figures around the world were involved in some way or another.

History of the Company

Odebrecht was founded in Brazil in 1944 as a construction outfit. For decades, the company continued to develop, becoming an international company in the late 1970s and establishing a holding company a few years later.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Odebrecht began to engage in bribery of officials only in 2001, after more than 50 years of history. It was in 2006 when the practice of bribing officials became especially common throughout the company; indeed, Odebrecht reportedly created an entire division dedicated to paying out bribes and other corrupt dealings. This division, called the Division of Structure Operations, had a separate computer system from the remainder of the company.

Building Corrupt Infrastructure

Besides this separate, complex computer system, Odebrecht also began to set up offshore accounts. In around 2010, the company allegedly bought a branch of an Austrian bank in Antigua to assist in further streamlining these illegal activities. Thanks to this complicated, well-developed system, Odebrecht was able to pay out roughly $788 million in bribes.

Collapse of the System

Brazilian officials began a sting called Operation Car Wash in 2014 involving Odebrecht and the Brazilian oil company Petrobras. Through this operation, officials determined that Odebrecht engaged in bid rigging, a process in which multiple companies would seemingly compete for projects. In actuality, though, Odebrecht oversaw the system, manipulating the process for its own gain.

Authorities in several nations are still working to sort out the details of Odebrecht's illegal activities. Along the way, the investigation has uncovered evidence that many prominent politicians and public figures were involved. According to lead prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, quoted in a BBC report, "this case implicated almost one-third of Brazil's senators and almost half of all Brazil's governors." Even the president of Peru and the vice president of Ecuador were implicated, with the former having resigned and the latter now in prison.

Wherever the Odebrecht case ends up, it's likely to only involve more people and more illegal activity as the drama unfolds.

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