In contexts where political corruption is endemic, why would political elites build state capacity to prosecute corruption? Prior studies emphasize exogenous pressure from social movements or international organizations and the rise of political leaders committed to fighting corruption. While important, these factors are not sufficient to explain the case of Brazil, where politicians empowered investigative bureaucracies, even though several political elites later became victims of prosecution. Drawing on document analysis of charges and sentences and on 110 in-depth interviews with prosecutors, judges, and politicians, I develop a framework that focuses on the processes through which corruption is criminalized on the ground. By examining the initiatives of politicians in interaction with the actions of civil servants who investigate and prosecute cases of corruption, I show that political elites empowered investigators because, at the time, these steps seemed innocuous. Prosecutors later reframed how they talked about corruption—getting other colleagues to pay attention to this issue—and learned new strategies to uncover corruption schemes, but these changes happened under the radar: they were not visible to politicians. Popular pressure also led courts to broaden the definition of corruption and lower the threshold of evidence for it, but these decisions took place after the politicians’ actions.

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