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Brazil takes on an centuries-old foe: corruption

Brazil is making strides in purging government corruption – a 500-year-old problem that persists today in Latin America because of cultural acceptance, inequality, and prevalent drug money.

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Brooms placed by members of Rio de Paz (Peace Rio), a nongovernmental organization, stood after a protest near the national congress in Brasília on Sept. 28.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

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Since its creation in 2007, the local activist group Rio de Paz, a loose coalition of youths and church members, has focused on one city's most notorious problem: the thousands of murders tallied in Rio de Janeiro each year.

But when President Dilma Rousseff, who took office in January, began to sack members of her cabinet amid corruption allegations, and the media followed up with aggressive investigations of misconduct at the highest levels, the civil society group began to take up another cause.

"We think that corruption is what kills," says Antônio Carlos Costa, a pastor and executive director of Rio de Paz.

They took to the streets to protest graft, carrying brooms to support the faxina, or sweeping up, and joining 20,000 protesters who showed up in Brazil's capital, Brasília, in September in the largest of more than 30 anticorruption marches held this fall throughout the country.

Mr. Costa says the small movement is growing as nonprofits and citizens seek to hold corruptive forces accountable.

Many countries in Latin America, such as Brazil and Mexico, are touting strong economies that make them important players on the international stage. But corruption, especially at the state and municipal levels, threatens to undermine their credibility in fighting crime.

Brazil's government is paying attention. Since President Rousseff has taken office, six ministers have resigned amid allegations of corruption, helping to boost her approval rating. Brazil also passed a freedom of information law this fall after years of debate, and formally launched, with the United States, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multicountry body that aims for transparency and the empowerment of citizens.

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