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Brazil takes on an centuries-old foe: corruption

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Latin America's corruption problems go back 500 years to the colonial era and persist today because of cultural acceptance, inequality – for example, low-paid police officers in Mexico often extract bribes to make ends meet – and the influx of drug money that can corrupt entire institutions.

Efforts toward greater accountability for wrongdoing run the gamut in Latin America. But most of the countries in the region sit somewhere in the middle, and they are pushing forward to help reverse the status quo – with Brazil paving the way, experts say.

"Brazilian society is passing through a new stage of democratic advances," says Fabiano Angelico, a São Paulo-based independent consultant on transparency.

Caught off guard?

The resignations in Rousseff's cabinet have helped spur an incipient movement. The latest to resign was Labor Minister Carlos Lupi, accused of taking money from nonprofits in return for ministry funding. He denied the charges but stepped down this month – preceded by the ministers of sports, tourism, agriculture, and transportation, as well as Rousseff's chief of staff.

Their resignations have been wildly popular among Brazilians, who see Rousseff as taking a stand where her well-loved predecessor, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose administration was dogged by a vote-buying scandal, did not. A September CNI/Ibope poll showed 85 percent of respondents calling her performance great, good, or normal.

Not all believe that the resignations represent a commitment to rooting out corruption, but rather Rousseff was caught off guard and is steering the narrative.

"She is tackling [corruption]," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, a Brazilian independent political analyst. "But if it were intentional it wouldn't be as disruptive as it has been.… She would have begun this administration with a clear goal of tackling corruption."

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