Pubdate: Thu, 18 Nov 1999
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 1999
Contact:  75 Farringdon Road London U.K EC1M 3HQ
Fax: 44-171-242-0985
Page: 3
Author: Alex Bellos, in Rio de Janeiro


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

Led by Magno Malta, a singing evangelical priest who beat drug addiction to
become a member of the congress, the all-party commission has exposed a
national network of crime. Since beginning 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 Eliot Ness who
brought the gangster Al Capone to justice in 1931.

Last week President Fernando 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 created a new anti-corruption squad.

"The commission has done more in a few months than [police and judges] have
done in 20 years," said David Fleischer, professor of political science at
Brasilia university. "It has dug into the problem. It has found a national
conspiracy and showed how [drug revenue] is laundered through the banking

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
swath 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 airforce
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 northeastern state
of Maranhão are 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 inspect a port shanty town 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 surprised 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 has shown teeth.

The success is partly explained by the colourful personalities of the 19
members. Mr Malta, who is also the lead singer in an evangelical
samba-gospel band, has been involved in rehabilitating drug addicts for 20
years. 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 the congress and have the enthusiasm of newcomers.

Antonio Carlos Biscaia, a commission member known as an attorney who led a
crusade against Rio's illegal gambling mafias, said: "Everyone is 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 efforts to fight crime in his five years of office.
But he could face greater scandals as the inquiry roots through the records
of the central bank.

Prof Fleischer said: "Cardoso is scared because it is making his government
look very bad." Drug mafias "contribute very heavily to campaign
financing". With the analysis of bank records, "the commission is getting
close to some big fish".
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