Pubdate: Sat, 13 Nov 1999
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Media Group 1999
Author: Alex Bellos in Rio de Janeiro


A new team of parliamentary crusaders is being credited with making
unprecedented strides against organised crime in Brazil, including the
unravelling of drugs mafias that include elected politicians, businessmen,
police and bankers in half the country's states.

Led by Magno Malta, a singing evangelical priest who beat drug addiction to
become a member of congress, the all-party parliamentary commission has
exposed a national network of crime.

Since the commission began work in April it has brought about the
imprisonment of 39 people - including one congress member accused of
slicing off a victim's limbs with a chainsaw.

Such feats have led some to call the commission "the Untouchables" - the
nickname of the incorruptible Chicago crimebusters under Elliot Ness who
jailed the gangster Al Capone in 1931.

This week President Ferndando Henrique Cardoso gave the commission its most
public backing by admitting that some sectors of the government were
involved in the traffic in drugs. He promised to expand the number of
federal police officers by 15%, and he created a new anti-corruption squad.

"The commission", said David Fleischer, professor of political science at
Brasilia university, "has done more in a few months than [police and
judges] have done in 20 years.

"It has dug into the problem. It has found a national conspiracy and showed
how [drug revenue] is laundered through the banking system."

The commission had also "destroyed the common image that drug traffic is
only in the hands of marginal criminals," he said. "It involves banks,
business people, people of high society, politicians, mayors, people in
state governments. We knew it was going on but we didn't know the broad
swathe of people involved."

The commission has no powers of arrest but has stronger investigative
powers than the police, being able to track bank, tax and telephone
records. It started off looking at allegations that Brazilian air force
planes were transporting cocaine.

Through rigorous interviewing and a little luck with witnesses it has
discovered chains of communication between gangs throughout Brazil.

Trails also started leading to politicians. Two in the north eastern state
of Maranhao are now accused of stealing lorries to transport cocaine paste
from Bolivia. In Rio de Janeiro two state deputies are being investigated.

The commission suspects that the main laundering point is based in
Campinas, a boom town near Sao Paulo.

The commission's inquiries have an air of theatricality because the group
travels round the country like an itinerant troupe, surrounded by heavy
security. When the members arrived in Rio de Janeiro they were taken by
police yacht to have a look at a port shantytown believed to be the centre
of the city's drug trade, but turned back short of their objective for fear
of being shot.

The commission's revelations have suprised a cynical public accustomed to
the impunity of elected officials and the impotence of the justice system.
There have been several similar commissions in recent years but only this
one is showing teeth.

The success is partly explained by the colourful personalities of the 19
members. Magno Malta, who is also the lead singer in an evangelical
samba-gospel band, has for 20 years been involved in rehabilitating drug
addicts. Moroni Torgan, a gun-toting Mormon, has first-hand knowledge of
organised crime as a former police officer.

All but one are serving their first terms in congress and have the
enthusiasm of newcomers.

Antonio Carlos Biscaia, a commission member who is well known as an
attorney who led a crusade against Rio's illegal gambling mafias, said:
"Everyone is very driven and very well intentioned. We all know this is not
a party issue."

President Cardoso has been embarrassed by the scale of the revelations,
which reflect poorly on previous efforts to fight crime in his five years
of government. But he could face greater scandals as the inquiry starts to
root through the records of the central bank.

Professor Fleischer said : "Cardoso is scared because it is making his
government look very bad." Drug mafias, he added, "contribute very heavily
to campaign financing".

With the analysis of bank records, he added, "the comission is getting
close to some big fish". 

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