Pubdate: Mon, 24 Jan 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer


Investigators in Brazilian probe have won the support of the working class,
one observer points out, because 'people see the rich and powerful . . .
going to jail. Slowly, things are changing.'

RIO DE JANEIRO--He was one of their own, a federal legislator. But his trail
led a congressional investigative commission deep into a blood-spattered
labyrinth of criminality, transforming the legislators into national heroes
and forcing Brazil to confront the dimensions of the threat posed by drug

The congressional deputies, a colorful mix of veteran crime fighters,
evangelical Christians and ex-addicts, traveled to the Amazon state of Acre
on the Bolivian border to hold hearings. They listened to frightened
witnesses, some masked to hide their identities, accuse Congressman
Hildebrando Pascoal and his family of turning Acre into a narco-state.

The moon-faced, narrow-eyed Pascoal, 48--who rose to power as a police
chief--supervised cross-border cocaine smuggling in planes and police
vehicles, witnesses testified. His savage reign claimed about 250 lives,
according to testimony: Hooded death squads allegedly dumped dismembered
bodies in the streets, stormed into hospitals to finish off wounded victims,
even chased an enemy across Brazil and brought his severed head back to
their boss. As underlings used a chain saw to cut off another victim's
limbs, the congressman directed the torture "coldly, like watching the
slaughter of an animal," one henchman said, and then executed the man with a

Pascoal's trail led beyond the Amazon. According to the congressional
investigators, it exposed a 16-state mafia suspected of using Brazilian air
force planes to smuggle cocaine to Europe, laundering millions through
companies in the state of Sao Paulo, and corrupting legislators, mayors,
judges, police--even a distinguished pathologist accused of faking an
autopsy after the killing of an impeached president's alleged bagman.

"For the first time, we have shown that the drug lords are not just young
men in slums," said congressional Deputy Antonio Biscaia of Rio de Janeiro,
a former prosecutor. "We have shown the relationship of drug trafficking
with political power."

The congressional panel's eight-month crusade has resulted in the expulsion
from Congress and arrest of Pascoal--who pleaded not guilty to murder and
other charges--along with the arrest or investigation, or both, of about 150
more suspects. The 19 members, many of them first-time deputies, have won
the admiration of working Brazilians pinned down on the front lines of the
drug war because the commission, known by the Portuguese initials CPI, has
gone after criminals who wear suits and ties.

As President Fernando Henrique Cardoso acknowledged recently when he ordered
urgent measures to strengthen anti-drug forces, Brazil will never be the
same. This vast nation is no longer a minor player on the global drug
chessboard. Identified by a recent study as the second-biggest consumer of
cocaine after the United States, Brazil has become a base for fast-growing
national and international mafias.

"It's evident--and the CPI demonstrated this clearly--that the question of
drug trafficking is more deeply rooted than any of us had imagined," Cardoso
told journalists. "These roots reach into some sectors of politics,
government and organized crime."

In some ways, though, Brazil seems better equipped to fight back than other
nations. Public outcry has produced surprising results, such as Cardoso's
decision last week to oust a defense minister the commission is
investigating for allegedly having provided legal services to gangsters. The
CPI has taken advantage of special powers, including access to bank and
telephone records. And despite alarming corruption revealed in state law
enforcement, some of the panel's breakthroughs built on existing cases being
pursued by federal police and prosecutors widely viewed as honest and

"There are serious people in Brazil doing serious work," Congresswoman Laura
Carneiro, who led the investigation in Acre state, said recently. But, she
added, "the institutions have to be democratic, they have to be

Carneiro, 36, was interviewed on the patio of her house in Rio de Janeiro
during the congressional holiday recess. As she tended to her 2-year-old
daughter, bodyguards hovering nearby, she nonchalantly described a telephone
death threat warning that she and the other members of the CPI would be
killed "one by one."

Lawmaker Worked in Slums of Rio

Carneiro's credentials as an anti-drug warrior consist mainly of her work as
a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and the city's secretary of social development
in its hillside slums, the favelas, many of them the fortresses of
traffickers armed with heavy weapons, expensive surveillance technology and
the allure of the gangster culture.

"I was close to the life of the people who are subjugated by drugs," she
said. "The traffickers take kids and pay them $25 a night to be lookouts.
That's how it starts. These are the worst cases, when they use
children--10-year-olds. Of course, it's a very poor country, and these kids'
parents don't have money."

Brazil has become big on the drug trafficking map for a number of
understandable reasons. The nation has lengthy borders with South American
producers and smugglers of cocaine, heroin and marijuana: Colombia, Peru,
Bolivia and Paraguay. The strategic locations of major seaports and airports
have made them longtime transshipment points for drugs bound for Europe and
the United States.

And a population of 160 million, about half of it considered poor, creates a
natural drug market. In the late 1980s, violent crime surged in big cities,
due largely to increasing consumption of powder cocaine and, later, crack

Then, in the 1990s, globalizing drug syndicates spread naturally into
ethnically diverse Brazil, which attracts mobsters from elsewhere in Latin
America and from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Additionally, government institutions tend to be weak, and existing criminal
organizations, particularly those involved in contraband and gambling,
offered drug merchants a ready-made infrastructure. At first, the media and
law enforcement officials identified the drug kingpins as the youthful
bare-chested desperadoes who fight Wild West-style gun battles in the
favelas. But the suspicion on the street was that those doomed young men,
who as Biscaia, the congressman from Rio de Janeiro, says, "do not even know
where Colombia is," were midlevel chieftains at best.

Time Was Right for Setting Up Commission

Brazilians have grown increasingly fed up with impunity in high places, and
that climate favored the creation of the commission last year. It has been
spearheaded largely by Congressman Moroni Torgan of Ceara state, a veteran
federal police commander and a practicing Mormon. Torgan led a similar
investigative panel examining drug mafias five years ago, but the results
were disappointing.

So Torgan pushed for a new investigation. This time, many Brazilians say,
the anti-drug commission unmasked the bona fide bosses, including
politicians charged with providing protection and landowners whose
plantations allegedly serve as secret landing strips. Probably because
Brazil is economically and culturally decentralized, it has not developed
major drug cartels such as those in Colombia and Mexico. But the commission
exposed the dots linking regional mafias, suggesting a federation of
alarming dimensions.

Authorities allege that Congressman Pascoal's thugs ranged far from Acre,
committing crimes and consolidating a network involved not only in drugs but
in arms trafficking, truck hijacking and murder for hire. Witnesses said his
partners were a state assemblyman in the northeastern state of Maranhao, a
now-fugitive business executive in Sao Paulo state charged with being the
top money launderer and Congressman Augusto Farias of Alagoas state.

The latter revelation could tie the drug probe to high-level political
corruption: Farias is also under investigation in the murder of his brother,
Paulo Cesar Farias, a key figure in the bribery scandal that caused the 1992
impeachment of former President Fernando Collor de Mello. Initially, police
concluded that the victim--who had worked as a Collor campaign manager--had
been slain by his girlfriend as part of a murder-suicide. Now, the anti-drug
commission alleges that the forensic pathologist falsified results in that
autopsy and numerous others at the behest of organized crime.

Thus far, the CPI has implicated big fish wherever it has gone. Nonetheless,
it remains to be seen what will happen when it concludes its mandate and
issues a final report, probably in April. How far will the trail go? How
many suspects will be convicted? How aggressively will the justice system
pursue leads?

"They don't know how they are going to end this," said Amaury De Souza, a
political scientist in Rio de Janeiro. "They just can't keep revealing
things--they have to come up with a solution. And the federal government
doesn't know where to go with it either. But it has huge popular appeal. It
is political gold."

Indeed, critics worry about the pitfalls of the lawmakers' high-profile
roles as super-sleuths, saying there have been moments of excess and

For example, in November the commission came to Rio de Janeiro to question
the girlfriend of a fugitive kingpin believed to be hiding in Paraguay with
his suppliers. The poised witness held her own, and afterward a newspaper
editorial called the episode "a lamentable spectacle," accusing legislators
of being unprepared and of bombarding her with inappropriate questions about
the romance.

Some legislators also seem intoxicated by the political spotlight. During
the Rio de Janeiro hearing, commission President Magno Malta, a preacher who
sings in an evangelical band, announced dramatically that the proceedings
were being broadcast live to the world on CNN. He was mistaken: The
broadcaster was CBN, a Brazilian radio network.

Moreover, lawyers have raised the specter of a witch hunt. Some accuse
legislators of trampling the constitutional rights of suspects by
threatening to arrest them if they refuse to testify. The legal and
political inexperience of the members of the CPI could undermine them, some
observers say.

Still, even if the lawmakers occasionally stumble as they charge around the
nation in pursuit of justice, the appeal of the commission is almost
irresistible in a country where impunity seems the law of the land,
especially for white-collar criminals.

"People see the rich and powerful being accused and some of them going to
jail," said Alba Zaluar, a top scholar on drug trafficking. "This is very
rare in Brazil. Slowly, things are changing."
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MAP posted-by: Don Beck