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4 Are Slain in Brazilian Prison Riot

Violence: Drug lord took over parts of the facility and killed rival bosses, officials say.

September 13, 2002|PAULA GOBBI and HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RIO DE JANEIRO — One of Brazil's most notorious drug lords surrendered Thursday after taking over parts of a maximum-security prison and killing four rival crime bosses, officials said.

Luiz Fernando da Costa smiled widely and sang a tune before he and members of his Red Command crime syndicate released their hostages and turned in their weapons to authorities inside Rio's Bangu I penitentiary.

The surrender of Da Costa, also known as Fernandinho Beira Mar (Freddy Seashore), ended a 24-hour prison riot whose violence spread outside the facility into several neighborhoods controlled by the rival drug lords.

The uprising highlighted the intractable corruption inside Brazil's penal system, the lawlessness that plagues vast chunks of this city and the growing ruthlessness and ambition of Rio's increasingly powerful drug lords.

"The objective wasn't escape," said Roberto Aguiar, security chief for Rio de Janeiro state. "It was to unite the [organized crime] leadership. Anyone who opposed this was eliminated."

Da Costa's top rival, Ernaldo Pinto de Medeiros, was shot to death and his corpse set ablaze. Gang members loyal to the vanquished leader, who was also known as Ue, stormed through at least nine Rio neighborhoods, forcing businesses to close in "mourning" for his death. Several schools also shut down, as did Rio's Federal University.

The episode is only the latest in a series of exploits by Da Costa, once just another poor resident of a Rio slum but later a feared drug kingpin who forged links with guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

Police say Da Costa fancies himself a Rio version of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord slain by police in 1993, and has worked hard to establish ties with international traffickers of narcotics and arms, even during the 18 months he has spent inside Colombian and Brazilian jails.

"He may be the only local drug dealer to have access to the international market of drugs and arms on a wholesale and retail basis," said Luiz Eduardo Soares, an anthropologist who has studied crime here. "That is why he wants to subordinate the rest to his control."

The uprising began at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, authorities said, when Da Costa took four guards and four construction workers hostage. With the guards' keys in hand, the prisoners moved on to another cellblock that held leaders of two rival gangs: the Third Command and their allies, the Friends of Friends.

One rival leader submitted to Da Costa's authority after being beaten up and was allowed to live, according to press reports here. But De Medeiros would not and was killed.

Government wiretaps captured Da Costa laughing about the killings in calls to associates outside the prison, authorities said.

"Ta dominado, ta tudo dominado," Da Costa sang, mimicking a popular song here. "It's under control, totally under control."

Da Costa was arrested in April 2001 by the Colombian army and extradited to Brazil. Federal authorities transferred him to the Rio prison this year, a move opposed by local officials.

Aguiar said 12 guards and the prison warden would be charged with aiding Da Costa and his underlings. Judge Nilson Naves, president of Brazil's highest criminal court, said the riot "offers proof that the Brazilian penal system has collapsed."

Outside the prison, gang members were said to have opened fire on at least four schools. They also reportedly invaded a supermarket in Bonsucesso, a neighborhood in northern Rio, far across the city from the penitentiary.

"We are so afraid--many of us live in conflict areas, in the favelas [slums] close to here," said one worker at the market. "We don't even know how we will get home."

Fearing more violence, many parents rushed to schools to pick up their children. Two buses were set ablaze in Bonsucesso, and some bus companies later changed their routes.

While much the city lived in a state of apprehension, criminal groups of the Red Command celebrated. On Wednesday night, drug dealers from the Morro da Providencia neighborhood shot mortar shells into the air.

In the Complexo da Mare, a collection of favelas, another drug gang celebrated with fireworks.

*

Gobbi reported from Rio de Janeiro and Tobar from Buenos Aires.

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