RIO DE JANEIRO — Weakened by bullet wounds, his empire crumbling, Luiz Fernando da Costa has spent weeks fleeing a military strike force in the jungles of eastern Colombia.
But the Brazilian drug lord, nicknamed Fernandinho Beira Mar (Freddy Seashore) for the coastal slum near Rio where he was born, is still dangerous.
During the years when he became a new breed of crime boss, forging an unprecedented alliance with Colombian guerrillas, the only weapon Da Costa needed was a telephone. He allegedly used just that to supervise the torture-slaying here of a young man who had a romance with one of the drug lord's girlfriends.
The excruciating 45-minute episode was recorded by a police wiretap: The victim moans as his tormentors mutilate him and make him eat one of his ears. Giving orders from a hide-out in Paraguay, a voice that police identify as Da Costa's taunts him: "That's the ear--is it yummy? Did they cut off both your feet already too? Wow, and how about those little toes?"
Such sadism does not, in itself, distinguish the drug lord from other youthful kingpins of the Rio favelas, or slums, who rise to notoriety with machine guns blazing but don't stray far from their hillside strongholds before dying or landing behind bars.
In contrast, the restless Da Costa has shown entrepreneurial vision. At a time when South American cartels gave way to smaller organizations, his empire stretched across the continent and overseas. He represents a new generation of kingpins in Brazil, whose drug trade has mushroomed because of the nation's giant economy, strategic geography and lawlessness.
Da Costa, 35, is a prime target of Colombian and U.S. law enforcement because he allegedly ran guns to leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in exchange for cocaine. He appears to be linked to a major guns-for-drugs deal between the FARC and Russian gangsters looking to unload arms in Latin America and peddle cocaine in Europe.
"Fernandinho is very intelligent," said Ronaldo Urbano, deputy chief of the anti-drug division of Brazil's federal police. "He made contact with other networks that are not easy to enter, like the guerrillas. What is worrisome is the magnitude that his organization attained because of his spirit of leadership."
Da Costa has been singled out as a textbook case in a crackdown on the guns-and-drugs racket that makes the FARC a threat to Colombia and the region. He has spent at least a year in the wilds near Colombia's border with Brazil, allegedly protected by the FARC's suspected point man in the racket, a regional guerrilla commander named Tomas Medina, according to Brazilian investigators.
Wife, Pilot and Henchman Arrested
Colombian troops almost captured Da Costa last month, wounding him three times in a shootout at a farm, according to authorities. A doctor was arrested on his way into the jungle to treat him; the drug lord sent emissaries to negotiate a possible surrender last week. But Brazilian police think the offer could be a ruse.
The Colombian operation, based in the remote town of Barrancominas, resulted in the arrests last month of Da Costa's wife, his top pilot and another henchman. Troops also found evidence indicating the dimensions of the guns-for-drugs deal, according to Urbano: rifles, crates and parachute remnants from an illicit arms shipment traced to Peru's fugitive former spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Montesinos was a suspected intermediary between the FARC and Russian organized crime, according to U.S. officials. In 1999, the ex-spy chief's Peruvian operatives airdropped thousands of AK-47 assault rifles to the FARC from Russian cargo planes piloted by Russian and Ukrainian crews, according to investigators.
Da Costa, meanwhile, ran guns to the FARC through established smuggling routes in hard-to-police areas of Suriname, Brazil and Paraguay, trading each rifle for 2 kilos of cocaine, according to Urbano. After dropping off military equipment, the Brazilian's planes picked up cocaine bound for destinations including the Netherlands and Ghana, according to investigators.
The traffickers used a satellite navigational system to coordinate airdrops of cocaine into the ocean near the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo, where small boats ferried the bales to ships, according to an investigative commission of the Brazilian Congress.
"Beira Mar today furnishes drugs for the United States and Europe. We are convinced that Luiz Fernando da Costa represents for Brazil and Latin America a new Pablo Escobar," the commission concluded in a report in November, referring to the slain Colombian drug lord.
Superlatives should be handled with care; the murky history of the drug war suggests that kingpins who get a lot of headlines have often already begun their decline.