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The Brazilian Connection: Cocaine Traffickers Take Operations to New Theater

April 07, 1987|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — The South American war between cocaine traffickers and drug enforcement officials is spreading into a vast new theater--Brazil. And police officials say the country's law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

Increasing amounts of cocaine are being moved through this country en route to the United States and Europe, several anti-drug experts said in recent interviews. And in the last year or so, traffickers have begun refining significant quantities of the drug in clandestine Brazilian laboratories.

Most raw cocaine paste and semi-refined "base" is produced from coca leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru. Colombia has long been the main center for the final stage of refining before the cocaine powder is sent along smuggling routes to the United States.

In recent years, officials have expressed fear that tighter controls on the cocaine trade in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia could result in more trafficking and refining in Brazil, and police officials and foreign experts say this is now happening.

Source of Vital Chemicals

Brazil is South America's only large manufacturer of ether and acetone, two essential precursors for refining cocaine. As Brazilian authorities have cracked down on bulky shipments of those chemicals to cocaine-producing countries, the flow of cocaine base into Brazil has increased, said Paulo Sergio Fleury, a Sao Paulo state narcotics agent.

"It is much easier to bring base to Brazil than to take the precursors out," Fleury said in a telephone interview. "This has been happening for the past year."

He said that clandestine cocaine laboratories are easy to hide in this nation of 3.3 million square miles of area and a population of 135 million.

"The police here are still not attentive to that aspect," Fleury said.

Much of Brazil, including territory along its western borders with Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, is sparsely inhabited, heavily forested and difficult to police. Its road system is well developed, and it has numerous international ports and airports. The setting is proving ideal, in many ways, for drug trafficking, Fleury said.

Becoming 'Drug Corridor'

"Brazil is becoming a drug corridor," he said, and as a result the use of cocaine by Brazilians is increasing. "Consumption (and) trafficking and shipping to the United States are all increasing," he added.

Fleury has been the leading Brazilian investigator in a cocaine smuggling case that has been making headlines here lately. U.S. agents in New York recently broke up a ring of smugglers who were bringing hundreds of pounds of cocaine into the United States on Pan American World Airways flights from Rio de Janeiro.

News of that smuggling operation--it is called the "Pan Am Connection" in the Brazilian press--illustrates Brazil's growing role in cocaine trafficking.

When U.S. agents in New York announced the Pan Am arrests on March 10, they estimated that the ring had smuggled in more than 200 pounds of cocaine a month for the last six years. Sixteen Pan Am employees or former employees were arrested.

Computer Provides Data

In Sao Paulo state, southwest of Rio de Janeiro, police found a large cocaine refining laboratory at a farm named Grandmother Berta's Corner. Fleury said the laboratory was under the control of Francisco Parente, a Brazilian arrested in connection with the Pan Am case.

Claudio Petenucci, the accused Brazilian leader in the Pan Am Connection, escaped arrest. But a desk-top computer found in his Sao Paulo office gave police a wealth of information about the smuggling ring.

On March 20, investigators seized 150 pounds of cocaine stashed in luggage lockers at Sao Paulo's Congonhas Airport. They said it was left there by Julio Petenucci, Claudio's brother.

Six days later, Fleury's agents arrested Julio Petenucci and Marcelo Consorte, another top suspect, in a neighborhood of high-rise apartments near the center of Sao Paulo.

Fleury said that Claudio Petenucci's computer was used to keep records on cocaine shipments and payments. According to the records, many shipments were made from the lab at Grandmother Berta's Corner to Sao Paulo, then to Rio and on to the United States.

Fleury said one computer disc carries the names, addresses and telephone numbers of more than 200 people, some of whom may be traffickers associated with Petenucci.

Drug-control officials assume that other organizations such as the Pan Am group continue to smuggle cocaine from Brazil.

"The Pan Am escapade would indicate that there is a great deal going through here," a foreign drug-control expert said.

Another foreign expert said the traffic through Brazil "has increased dramatically" in the last several years.

"They are doing more of the refining here in the country, both for export and some local consumption," he said, adding that the police apparently have interdicted only a small part of the traffic. "My personal opinion is that basically we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg," he said.

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