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Sprawling Brazilian probe Swiss prosecutors search Vitol and Trafigura offices as part of Car Wash probe

Headquarters of Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras in Rio, Brazil

Operation Car Wash began in March 2014 as an investigation into allegations that executives at Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras had accepted bribes from construction firms in return for awarding them contracts at inflated prices.

(Keystone / Antonio Lacerda)

Swiss investigators have executed searches at the Geneva offices of commodity traders Vitol and Trafigura at the request of Brazilian federal prosecutors as part of Brazil’s Lava Jato [Car Wash] corruption probe.  

In a statementexternal link on Thursday, Brazilian federal prosecutors said Swiss investigators had executed “search and seize warrants” at Geneva addresses linked to Vitol and Trafigura on Wednesday. 

Brazilian prosecutors claim that Vitol and Trafigura paid bribes to employees of state oil company Petrobras to obtain contracts. It said the purpose of the Geneva searches was “to deepen investigations conducted in Brazil of crimes of corruption, money laundering and criminal organisation that point to the involvement of members at the top of the two companies.” 

The Car Wash kickback scheme is the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. Investigations began in March 2014 as a probe into allegations that executives at Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras had accepted bribes from construction firms in return for awarding them contracts at inflated prices. 

It has ensnared members of Brazil’s business and political elite, but also spread to neighbouring countries and involved global commodity trading houses. The probe revealed the scope of corruption and relationships between the public and private sectors. 


Following the Geneva searches, Vitol told Reuters that it has a “zero tolerance policy in respect of bribery and corruption” and cooperates “fully with the relevant authorities in all the jurisdictions in which we operate.” 

Trafigura said it had responded to the request by Swiss authorities for information “and provided available responsive documentation”. It added that it “is continuing to keep these matters under review and is taking the allegations previously made seriously”. 

According to the Swiss NGO Public Eyeexternal link, the searches are linked to declarations made in August by Carlos Henrique Nogueira Herz, a former oil intermediary, who had accused Vitol's current director, Ian Taylor, and former Trafigura founder Claude Dauphin of being aware of the millions of dollars paid to Petrobras officials to obtain oil contracts between 2011 and 2014.

Public Eyeexternal link and British NGO Global Witness published a report in November 2018 that claimed Swiss traders Trafigura, Vitol and Glencore had used dubious intermediaries and professional money launderers, called "doleiros", to facilitate their business with Petrobas. The NGOs say the three companies are accused of paying cumulative bribes of $15.3 million.

Public Eye said the Geneva searches represented a "new phase" in the Petrobas affair.

Swiss angle 

In Octoberexternal link the Swiss Office of the Attorney General said Switzerland had pressed charges against a person in a corruption probe of Petrobras and construction firm Odebrecht. 

Swiss prosecutors said they suspect the person, acting as a financial middleman, of helping bribe public officials and of money laundering in the Car Wash case. The Petrobras-Odebrecht case has led to around 60 criminal proceedings in Switzerland while more than 130 businessmen and politicians have been convicted in the case in Brazil. 

But the probe, once heralded as a model of anti-corruption efforts, has been heavily criticized in Brazil following allegations that some prosecutions were politically tainted.

Compliance How do traders ensure due diligence in high-risk countries?

The high number of corruption allegations in the commodities sector raises the question of how traders ensure due diligence in high-risk states.


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