Pubdate: Tue, 27 Mar 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer


Crime: Before Fleeing Into The Jungle, Boss Showed Entrepreneurial Vision, 
Cunning--And Cruelty.

RIO DE JANEIRO--Weakened by bullet wounds, his empire crumbling, Luiz 
Fernando da Costa has spent weeks fleeing a military strike force in the 
jungles of eastern Colombia.

But the Brazilian drug lord, nicknamed Fernandinho Beira Mar (Freddy 
Seashore) for the coastal slum near Rio where he was born, is still dangerous.

During the years when he became a new breed of crime boss, forging an 
unprecedented alliance with Colombian guerrillas, the only weapon Da Costa 
needed was a telephone. He allegedly used just that to supervise the 
torture-slaying here of a young man who had a romance with one of the drug 
lord's girlfriends.

The excruciating 45-minute episode was recorded by a police wiretap: The 
victim moans as his tormentors mutilate him and make him eat one of his 
ears. Giving orders from a hide-out in Paraguay, a voice that police 
identify as Da Costa's taunts him: "That's the ear--is it yummy. Did they 
cut off both your feet already too. Wow, and how about those little toes."

Such sadism does not, in itself, distinguish the drug lord from other 
youthful kingpins of the Rio favelas, or slums, who rise to notoriety with 
machine guns blazing but don't stray far from their hillside strongholds 
before dying or landing behind bars.

In contrast, the restless Da Costa has shown entrepreneurial vision. At a 
time when South American cartels gave way to smaller organizations, his 
empire stretched across the continent and overseas. He represents a new 
generation of kingpins in Brazil, whose drug trade has mushroomed because 
of the nation's giant economy, strategic geography and lawlessness.

Da Costa, 35, is a prime target of Colombian and U.S. law enforcement 
because he allegedly ran guns to leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary 
Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in exchange for cocaine. He appears to 
be linked to a major guns-for-drugs deal between the FARC and Russian 
gangsters looking to unload arms in Latin America and peddle cocaine in Europe.

"Fernandinho is very intelligent," said Ronaldo Urbano, deputy chief of the 
anti-drug division of Brazil's federal police. "He made contact with other 
networks that are not easy to enter, like the guerrillas. What is worrisome 
is the magnitude that his organization attained because of his spirit of 

Da Costa has been singled out as a textbook case in a crackdown on the 
guns-and-drugs racket that makes the FARC a threat to Colombia and the 
region. He has spent at least a year in the wilds near Colombia's border 
with Brazil, allegedly protected by the FARC's suspected point man in the 
racket, a regional guerrilla commander named Tomas Medina, according to 
Brazilian investigators.

Wife, Pilot And Henchman Arrested

Colombian troops almost captured Da Costa last month, wounding him three 
times in a shootout at a farm, according to authorities. A doctor was 
arrested on his way into the jungle to treat him; the drug lord sent 
emissaries to negotiate a possible surrender last week. But Brazilian 
police think the offer could be a ruse.

The Colombian operation, based in the remote town of Barrancominas, 
resulted in the arrests last month of Da Costa's wife, his top pilot and 
another henchman. Troops also found evidence indicating the dimensions of 
the guns-for-drugs deal, according to Urbano: rifles, crates and parachute 
remnants from an illicit arms shipment traced to Peru's fugitive former spy 
chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.

Montesinos was a suspected intermediary between the FARC and Russian 
organized crime, according to U.S. officials. In 1999, the ex-spy chief's 
Peruvian operatives airdropped thousands of AK-47 assault rifles to the 
FARC from Russian cargo planes piloted by Russian and Ukrainian crews, 
according to investigators.

Da Costa, meanwhile, ran guns to the FARC through established smuggling 
routes in hard-to-police areas of Suriname, Brazil and Paraguay, trading 
each rifle for 2 kilos of cocaine, according to Urbano. After dropping off 
military equipment, the Brazilian's planes picked up cocaine bound for 
destinations including the Netherlands and Ghana, according to investigators.

The traffickers used a satellite navigational system to coordinate airdrops 
of cocaine into the ocean near the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, where 
small boats ferried the bales to ships, according to an investigative 
commission of the Brazilian Congress.

"Beira Mar today furnishes drugs for the United States and Europe. We are 
convinced that Luiz Fernando da Costa represents for Brazil and Latin 
America a new Pablo Escobar," the commission concluded in a report in 
November, referring to the slain Colombian drug lord.

Superlatives should be handled with care; the murky history of the drug war 
suggests that kingpins who get a lot of headlines have often already begun 
their decline.

In some ways, however, Fernandinho does recall narco-barons such as Escobar 
who were simultaneously perverse monsters and staunch family men. Brazilian 
journalists have grown accustomed to phone calls from Da Costa in which he 
rails against authorities for jailing two of his sisters on charges of 
money laundering.

"He's a pop star," said Marcia Velasco, a prosecutor here. "He's always 
calling newspapers. He's very vain."

Although he insists that his relatives are innocent, Da Costa has admitted 
publicly to killing people, according to published accounts. In January, he 
called the Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color and gave a long interview about 
the slayings of two smugglers based at the Brazil-Paraguay border, former 
allies whom he accused of betraying his right-hand man to police.

"You can write that I ordered the killings of Mauro and Ramon Morel," Da 
Costa declared, according to the article. He warned members of the Morel 
clan that "they can't fight a war with me. They are like ants to me, and I 
am an elephant for them. I'll crush them like a steamroller."

The drug lord sounds smart, articulate and manipulative on the phone, 
according to Renato Homem, press chief for Rio's state police and a former 
crime reporter who has interviewed him.

Da Costa has an elementary school education. His mother worked as a motel 
maid when he was growing up in the Beira Mar favela in Duque de Caxias, an 
industrial zone north of Rio. Da Costa doesn't smoke, drink, gamble or use 
drugs, according to Velasco. He was first arrested for robbery while doing 
his military service.

Doing Business With All The Drug Rings

Taking control of the local drug traffic, Da Costa followed the path of 
small-time gangsters who rule the tightknit, socially isolated slums, 
authorities say. He ordered residents of the Beira Mar community of 1,300 
families to paint their houses the same color. He financed a radio station 
whose announcers sung his praises.

Da Costa didn't align himself with any of the criminal rings that fight for 
domination of Rio's 650 favelas. Instead, he did business with them all, 
selling bulk quantities of marijuana grown in Paraguay, police said.

As business boomed, Da Costa decided to go to the source. In Paraguay, he 
formed partnerships with the Morels and others who moved all manner of 
contraband from border towns such as Ciudad del Este and Capitan Bado. He 
smuggled marijuana, cocaine and guns into Rio and at least four other states.

Da Costa was arrested in 1996 in Minas Gerais state. But he soon 
escaped--allegedly paying a hefty bribe--and took refuge in Paraguay, where 
he swaggered through the streets in defiance of police, according to law 
enforcement officials.

When Velasco began investigating him, she realized the vast power of her 
prey. "It opened up the map of Brazil: We had to investigate everything," 
said Velasco, 35, who lives under armed guard.

The prosecutor became the drug lord's obsession. U.S. agents warned her 
that telephone intercepts had picked up conversations in which Da Costa 
ordered henchmen to assassinate her, she said.

Da Costa's talent for international deal-making may be what brings him down.

"I think it is a matter of days before he is captured," said Josias 
Quintal, the public security chief in Rio state. Quintal recalled the 
tape-recorded torture slaying: The victim, Michel Anderson do Nascimento, 
21, wasn't a criminal; he simply had an affair with Da Costa's girlfriend.

The woman was also killed by gangsters, according to the congressional 
report, which says the killers then displayed her corpse in a wheelbarrow 
that was carted around the favela.

"I have been a policeman for 30 years," Quintal said. "And that tape is the 
most terrible thing I have ever encountered."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart