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Odebrecht: Latin America's bottomless corruption scandal

© afp/AFP/File / by Sebastian Smith | Demonstrators outside an Odebrecht project in the Dominican Republic, one of a number of Latin American countries where the Brazilian construction giant is alleged to have spread bribes

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - 

Brazil's Odebrecht construction conglomerate runs projects worldwide but its most sophisticated international activity may have been a corruption network involving politicians across Latin America.

One of the world's biggest construction companies, Odebrecht has built everything from the Grand Parkway highway in Texas to the Mariel port in Cuba. But the reach of its pay-to-play corruption scheme was no less ambitious.

Here's what we know about the scope and fallout of a scandal first uncovered by Brazilian prosecutors and rippling steadily out across the region.

- The department of bribes -

Odebrecht, which is a major player in construction, engineering, agriculture and petrochemicals production, exports to more than 100 countries.

Founded in 1944 and employing 128,000 people according to 2015 figures -- a number that plummeted after the corruption scandal broke -- Odebrecht has long been a jewel in Brazil's industrial crown.

However, under the founder's grandson Marcelo Odebrecht the company became known for applying that same ambition and organization to a bribery scheme so vast that it required its own company department and office space.

The way it worked, Odebrecht would bribe Brazilian politicians to get inflated construction contracts at state oil major Petrobras.

Odebrecht was also bribing politicians -- sometimes right into their pockets, sometimes into party campaign slush funds -- to get favorable legislation passed. After enrolling much of the Brazilian political establishment, the company extended its scheme to other countries.

- International fallout -

Probes have discovered Odebrecht bribery schemes in Mexico, Panama and Peru -- pretty much anywhere in the region where the company sought contracts.

In December, the US Justice Department announced that Odebrecht would pay a $3.5 billion fine -- a record in international corruption cases -- after admitting to paying $788 million in bribes across 12 countries.

In Colombia alone, according to a prosecutor there, Odebrecht paid more than $27.7 million in bribes.

Recent politicians targeted by prosecutors unravelling the scandal include:

- The Dominican Republic's Trade and Industry Minister Juan Temistocles Montas arrested in May;

- A dozen people, including former electricity minister Alecksey Mosquera and an uncle of the vice president, arrested in Ecuador;

- Peru's ex-president Ollanta Humala and his wife Nadine Heredia jailed on money-laundering charges in July;

- A Peruvian newspaper reported in August that opposition leader Keiko Fujimori has also come under suspicion of taking payments from the Brazilian firm;

- Emilio Lozoya, former chief executive at Mexican state oil company Pemex, was ordered in August to answer allegations that he took $10 million in Odebrecht bribes.

- The Venezuela angle -

The latest twist is the allegation by Venezuela's fugitive ex-chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, that President Nicolas Maduro and the strongman's inner circle raked in Odebrecht bribes as their country's economy crumbled.

Ortega, who was fired after emerging as a top critic of Maduro, said the bribe-taking went all the way to the top.

"They are very worried and anxious, because they know we have details on all the cooperation, amounts and people who got rich, and that investigation involves Mr Nicolas Maduro and his inner circle," she told a meeting of Latin American prosecutors in Mexico by conference call last Friday.

In Brasilia on Wednesday, she repeated the allegation, saying she has "a lot" of proof regarding Odebrecht corruption involving Maduro and other top figures.

Maduro has asked Interpol to issue an arrest warrant against Ortega.

by Sebastian Smith

© 2017 AFP