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Drug Panel in Rarefied Territory

Investigators in Brazilian probe have won the support of the working class, one observer points out, because 'people see the rich and powerful . . . going to jail. Slowly, things are changing.'

January 24, 2000|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — He was one of their own, a federal legislator. But his trail led a congressional investigative commission deep into a blood-spattered labyrinth of criminality, transforming the legislators into national heroes and forcing Brazil to confront the dimensions of the threat posed by drug mafias.

The congressional deputies, a colorful mix of veteran crime fighters, evangelical Christians and ex-addicts, traveled to the Amazon state of Acre on the Bolivian border to hold hearings. They listened to frightened witnesses, some masked to hide their identities, accuse Congressman Hildebrando Pascoal and his family of turning Acre into a narco-state.

The moon-faced, narrow-eyed Pascoal, 48--who rose to power as a police chief--supervised cross-border cocaine smuggling in planes and police vehicles, witnesses testified. His savage reign claimed about 250 lives, according to testimony: Hooded death squads allegedly dumped dismembered bodies in the streets, stormed into hospitals to finish off wounded victims, even chased an enemy across Brazil and brought his severed head back to their boss. As underlings used a chain saw to cut off another victim's limbs, the congressman directed the torture "coldly, like watching the slaughter of an animal," one henchman said, and then executed the man with a pistol.

Pascoal's trail led beyond the Amazon. According to the congressional investigators, it exposed a 16-state mafia suspected of using Brazilian air force planes to smuggle cocaine to Europe, laundering millions through companies in the state of Sao Paulo, and corrupting legislators, mayors, judges, police--even a distinguished pathologist accused of faking an autopsy after the killing of an impeached president's alleged bagman.

"For the first time, we have shown that the drug lords are not just young men in slums," said congressional Deputy Antonio Biscaia of Rio de Janeiro, a former prosecutor. "We have shown the relationship of drug trafficking with political power."

The congressional panel's eight-month crusade has resulted in the expulsion from Congress and arrest of Pascoal--who pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges--along with the arrest or investigation, or both, of about 150 more suspects. The 19 members, many of them first-time deputies, have won the admiration of working Brazilians pinned down on the front lines of the drug war because the commission, known by the Portuguese initials CPI, has gone after criminals who wear suits and ties.

As President Fernando Henrique Cardoso acknowledged recently when he ordered urgent measures to strengthen anti-drug forces, Brazil will never be the same. This vast nation is no longer a minor player on the global drug chessboard. Identified by a recent study as the second-biggest consumer of cocaine after the United States, Brazil has become a base for fast-growing national and international mafias.

"It's evident--and the CPI demonstrated this clearly--that the question of drug trafficking is more deeply rooted than any of us had imagined," Cardoso told journalists. "These roots reach into some sectors of politics, government and organized crime."

In some ways, though, Brazil seems better equipped to fight back than other nations. Public outcry has produced surprising results, such as Cardoso's decision last week to oust a defense minister the commission is investigating for allegedly having provided legal services to gangsters. The CPI has taken advantage of special powers, including access to bank and telephone records. And despite alarming corruption revealed in state law enforcement, some of the panel's breakthroughs built on existing cases being pursued by federal police and prosecutors widely viewed as honest and determined.

"There are serious people in Brazil doing serious work," Congresswoman Laura Carneiro, who led the investigation in Acre state, said recently. But, she added, "the institutions have to be democratic, they have to be strengthened."

Carneiro, 36, was interviewed on the patio of her house in Rio de Janeiro during the congressional holiday recess. As she tended to her 2-year-old daughter, bodyguards hovering nearby, she nonchalantly described a telephone death threat warning that she and the other members of the CPI would be killed "one by one."

Lawmaker Worked in Slums of Rio

Carneiro's credentials as an anti-drug warrior consist mainly of her work as a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman and the city's secretary of social development in its hillside slums, the favelas, many of them the fortresses of traffickers armed with heavy weapons, expensive surveillance technology and the allure of the gangster culture.

"I was close to the life of the people who are subjugated by drugs," she said. "The traffickers take kids and pay them $25 a night to be lookouts. That's how it starts. These are the worst cases, when they use children--10-year-olds. Of course, it's a very poor country, and these kids' parents don't have money."

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