Rough cuts

Brazil’s fabulous Batista boys

The meat-mongers whose testimony could end Michel Temer’s presidency
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JOSÉ BATISTA SOBRINHO helped build Brasília. In 1957 his meat business supplied canteens that fed workers constructing Brazil’s modernist capital. Now his two youngest sons, Wesley and Joesley, are bringing the place down. As the bosses of the company their father founded, renamed JBS in his honour, they are at the centre of a scandal that may force a president out of office for the second time in a year.

JBS is the world’s biggest beef exporter. Its revenues rose from 3.9bn reais ($1.8bn) in 2006 to 170bn reais last year, helped by China’s appetite and Brazil’s enthusiasm for national champions. From 2007 to 2015 the development bank, BNDES, injected into Batista enterprises more than 8bn reais in capital and loans. Most of it was to help JBS buy rivals, including American brands like Swift and Pilgrim’s Pride. J&F, the family’s holding company, has diversified into non-meat businesses, including Havaianas, which makes fashionable flip-flops.

As JBS was buying up rivals, the Batistas were buying politicians. The company’s declared campaign donations swelled from 20m reais in 2006 to nearly 400m reais in the election in 2014; in that contest it gave more than any other firm. In the past decade the brothers have bankrolled 1,829 candidates; their largesse helped elect a third of the current congress. Little of it was legal. The Batistas have confessed that almost all the declared cash, plus millions paid under the table, was bribes to politicians specifically to further J&F’s interests.
In the past year the Batistas’ firms have faced five criminal investigations. The latest probes J&F’s dealings with BNDES, which provided finance at the behest of paid-off politicians.

To save their enterprises, and themselves, the brothers approached prosecutors investigating the metastasising bribery scandal centred on Petrobras, the state-run energy company. The bargain they struck was their niftiest deal yet. In exchange for providing evidence of wrongdoing by major political figures—including, possibly, President Michel Temer—they secured near-total immunity.

Unlike Marcelo Odebrecht, boss of a construction firm at the heart of the Petrobras allegations, neither Batista will spend a day in jail or under house arrest. Free to leave Brazil, Joesley has already moved to his posh New York flat with his wife, a former television presenter, and their child. He and Wesley each agreed to pay fines of 110m reais, which leaves them both billionaires.

The meat-mongers are not completely off the hook. JBS may face bribery probes and lawsuits from holders of the company’s securities in the United States. Brazil’s markets watchdog is looking into possible insider trading. In the weeks before May 17th, when details of their explosive testimonies leaked to the press, the Batistas sold more than 300m reais’ worth of JBS shares and bought dollars.

The shares have lost a third of their value since then; the dollar jumped by 7% on the next day.

The brothers and their firms deny allegations of insider trading. Apparently, they are blessed with their father’s foresight. 

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