Lula da Silva's right-hand man convicted in massive graft case

Dirceu was once Brazil's second-most powerful politician

Juan Arias
José Dirceu in a file photo.
José Dirceu in a file photo.Ana Nascimento (EFE)

Brazil's Supreme Court on Tuesday convicted three top aides of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, including his former right-hand man José Dirceu, on charges that they diverted public funds to buy political support from opposition lawmakers for his leftist administration during the ex-leader's first term.

The vote was six-to-two in favor of a conviction, but two more justices are still due to vote on Thursday in what is being described as the biggest corruption case in Brazil's history. Besides Dirceu, who served as Lula da Silva's chief of staff and is a co-founder of Brazil's ruling Workers Party (PT), José Genoino, the party's president at the time, and Delúbio Soares, its treasurer, were also convicted. The three men face prison sentences of between two and 12 years.

The so-called mensalão (monthly payment) case involved bribes worth hundreds of thousands of reals, paid to politicians from four other parties in order to secure their votes in favor of legislation backed by Lula da Silva's administration. The former president was never implicated in the case, but in 2005 he went on national television to apologize for the actions of others close to him. In all, 34 members from different political parties that were aligned with Lula da Silva's government have been convicted in the case. But it is the conviction of Dirceu - considered the country's second-most powerful politician during Lula's time in power - that has shocked the nation. Once considered a potential successor, Dirceu helped the former president come to power in 2003.

But Dirceu knows all about ups and downs. In 1969, during the Brazilian dictatorship, he was deported to Mexico along with 13 other political prisoners in exchange for the release of then-US ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick, who was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas.

Dirceu underwent plastic surgery in Cuba so he could return to Brazil

Dirceu changed his appearance, undergoing plastic surgery in Cuba, so he could return to Brazil without being recognized. But his stay was cut short when the military discovered he was in the country. Dirceu had to return to Cuba in 1971.

Once back in Brazil four years later, he settled in the city of Cruzeiro do Oeste, Pará state, where he met his wife, who was at first unaware of his background. They had one child.

When the dictatorship ended, Dirceu assisted then-labor leader Lula da Silva in organizing the PT, and later helped propel him to the presidency in 2003 after three unsuccessful attempts.

During his first term in office, Dirceu became a kind of a "super minister." According to the evidence that was presented in the trial, the former chief of staff was instrumental in helping pay out the money to lawmakers in exchange for their alliance in Congress. When reports began to surface that Dirceu could flee the country after the investigation began, he said: "The left may make a lot of mistakes but it will never be a coward."

Those close to him say that Dirceu is like a phoenix, who will eventually rise again, even if he is eventually sent to jail. They also predict that he will continue to wield his influence over the PT even from behind bars.

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