As much as pouring cement and building towers, Brazilian construction dynasty Odebrecht was famed for its political panache. “I get down in the mud with the pigs but come out the other side clean in my white suit,” Norberto Odebrecht, founder of the legacy contractor, liked to boast back in the 1970s and 1980s. The catchphrase was shorthand for what became a patently Brazilian way of doing business – the art of buying influence and coming away unsoiled, or at least unincarcerated – among porcine politicians and bribe-truffling officials.
In half a century and over three generations, the family firm from northeast Brazil grew into a multinational engineering colossus, hurling up grand public works from the Andes to Angola. Shady pacts with political grifters and bagmen were just part of the deal behind the build-up and seemingly nothing a little Brazilian bonhomie and contract skimming couldn’t tidy up. Until it didn’t.