Pubdate: Fri, 30 Dec 2005
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Page: A10
Copyright: 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Geraldo Samor, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal


Ms. Maggessi Wins Acclaim As She Takes on Brazil's Drug Bosses

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Once every few months, the sky above this city's 
sprawling Rocinha slum is lit by phosphorescent red trails of 
crisscrossing bullets. Residents know that yet another battle has 
erupted between cops and local drug lords.

As Brazil's best-known city continues its decades-long war on drugs, 
Rio police are having a harder time arresting drug bosses because the 
new breed of bosses operate among the densely packed residents of the 
city's 500 slums, home to nearly one of every five of Rio's six 
million people. Police raids often produce bystander casualties.

But Marina Maggessi, the chief investigator of the Rio police's 
antidrug division, is getting better results through less violent 
means. Using a mixture of high-tech espionage and psychological 
tactics, she has helped the police arrest -- or occasionally kill -- 
nearly 80 drug bosses in the past three years. Her record of nabbing 
drug lords with names like "Seaside Freddy," "Pitbull" and "Big Bat" 
has made her the city's best-known cop, and in a city whose police 
are generally viewed suspiciously, her exploits are praised from 
op-ed pages to Internet communities.

"She is a model to be followed," says Denise Frossard, a 
congresswoman and former judge who once locked up 14 heads of clans 
that controlled organized crime in Rio.

Ms. Maggessi, a diminutive 46-year-old, is a rare success story in 
the drug war in Latin America. While Asian and Middle Eastern nations 
fight terrorism by Islamist extremists, Latin American countries 
continue to wage their own battle against the illicit trade in 
narcotics, fighting powerful drug gangs that often are 
better-equipped than police. The criminality and violence stunt 
economic growth in the region, divert government resources, corrupt 
institutions from the police to the bureaucracy to the courts and 
have claimed countless lives.

Progress in the drug war is especially hard to feel in places like 
Rio. Kingpins largely control the slums' warrens of streets, and 
those arrested by Ms. Maggessi are immediately replaced by underlings.

Against that backdrop, Ms. Maggessi provides citizens with an 
occasional, if elusive, sense of victory. Elderly women often bake 
her cakes, and some provide valuable information. About two years 
ago, an 80-year-old woman gave her 22 videotapes of local drug 
dealers she had filmed from the window of her tiny apartment. As a 
result, prosecutors were able to convict 20 people of drug charges, 
including nine corrupt cops.

Ms. Maggessi was born into the same Rio poverty as many of those she 
puts behind bars and works close to her prey in a run-down precinct 
building at the bottom of the Monkeys' Hill slum on Rio's north side. 
Her team can spend months listening to tapes, comparing voices, 
trying to break down codes used by criminals and cross-referencing 
phone records.

One high-profile arrest was Elias Pereira da Silva, also known as The 
Crazy One. Prosecutors accused him of involvement with 60 homicides, 
including the torture and murder of an investigative reporter. Ms. 
Maggessi and her team spent three months wiretapping his family, 
friends and lawyer to pinpoint his location -- an old couple's shack 
- -- and helped arrest him without firing a shot in September 2002. He 
is now serving a 28-year prison term.

Ms. Maggessi uses street smarts when a wiretap isn't sufficient. A 
few years ago, she was tracking a cocaine dealer known simply as 
Waldir by camping out in an apartment next door and waiting for him 
to use his wiretapped phone to call his out-of-state supplier. She 
needed the supplier's number too, so she could arrest both men. But 
because Brazil's telephone companies had just been privatized, Waldir 
couldn't figure out the new dialing instructions and was having 
trouble making the call.

Tired of waiting, Ms. Maggessi seized on a power outage -- which 
disabled Waldir's phone's caller ID -- and called him on his phone. 
Posing as a telephone-company operator, she guided him through the 
dialing instructions. A pleased Waldir spent weeks telling friends 
how privatized companies had improved customer service, until he was 
caught by Ms. Maggessi the moment he took delivery of the drug.

Aside from eavesdropping, Ms. Maggessi relies on psychology, as Rio 
copes with a generational shift in the underworld. Fifteen years ago, 
the drug trade here was the realm of businessmen who weren't addicts 
and who divided the city through gentlemen's agreements. Now, a horde 
of illiterate, addicted and violent lesser bosses -- who ascended as 
their superiors were arrested or killed -- run the show. After 
arresting younger traffickers, Ms. Maggessi offers them what they 
least expect -- sympathy. By using cups of coffee, sandwiches and a 
bit of motherly attention, she coaxes out information that often 
leads to new arrests.

Despite her professional achievements, Ms. Maggessi doubts her work 
will win the battle to stamp out drugs. "Police are the last resort," 
she says. "When every other institution has failed -- the family, the 
church, the schools, the state -- people turn to police, but the 
solution is not with us." 
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