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Drug Trade in Brazil Gets a Dose of Ideology

June 23, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — Every evening at 6, a chant echoes through the cellblocks of Bangu I, the city's largest maximum- security prison. It is the voice of the drug trade and its largest syndicate, the Red Command.

"Comando Vermelho!" the convicted "vapor men" and "mules" yell in Portuguese. "For justice and freedom! To the streets now!"

In this city's favelas, or slums, the soldiers of the drug trade call themselves "the movement." That term, like the chant inside Bangu I, hints at the quasi- political ideas now circulating among the Red Command and the city's other dominant drug syndicates, the Third Command and the Friends of Friends.

The syndicates have as many as 10,000 armed men in Rio, according to official estimates. In the city's impoverished northern neighborhoods and hillside slums, they are a "parallel power" that metes out street justice. Outside the slums, their small armies have brought a new, frightening spectacle of violence, including repeated fire bombings of city buses.

"We are facing a change in the nature of crime in Rio de Janeiro," said Luiz Eduardo Soares, Brazil's secretary of public security. The drug gangs, he says, are trying to intimidate the city's elected leaders with "terrorist methods" and actions that carry "a savage political dimension."

This city's influential Jornal do Brasil newspaper calls the ever-escalating conflict between the drug gangs and police "A Guerra do Rio" ("The War of Rio").

That phrase runs in a banner over a string of stories detailing gun battles on the highways that connect Rio to its international airport, raids on public landmarks and forced closures of schools under threat of attack.

Police officials and analysts here agree that one man more than any other is behind the growth and increasing sophistication of Rio's crime syndicates: Luiz Fernando da Costa, known by the nickname "Fernandinho Beira Mar" (Freddy Seashore). He has fashioned the Red Command into a well-funded, if loosely organized, alliance akin to the infamous Medellin and Cali cartels of Colombia.

Da Costa began his career as a street-corner drug dealer in Rio, then traveled to Paraguay and Colombia, where he became a wholesaler supplying drugs and weapons to the Rio crime bosses, officials say. In Colombia, he was arrested while hiding out with FARC guerrillas, according to police reports.

"He brought a more systematic vision of the business and the power game to Rio," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, president of Viva Rio, an anti-violence group. Da Costa and the other leaders of the Red Command are "older, better prepared and have stronger links to the international and national markets" than their predecessors.

After being arrested in Colombia in 2001 and extradited to Brazil, Da Costa cemented his control of Rio's drug trade in a prison uprising on Sept. 11, 2002, when his "soldiers" killed four rival drug leaders inside Bangu I. Similar actions have followed as the authorities try to stem Da Costa's influence by moving him from one penitentiary to another.

"It's a matter of sheer power," Fernandes said.

"They are telling the government, 'We are the ones running the city, not you. And if you put pressure on us, we are going to terrorize the city.' "

Parallel to the Sept. 11 prison uprising -- the chosen date, Fernandes said, was likely not a coincidence -- the young musclemen of the Red Command forced merchants in several Rio neighborhoods to join a "strike" in support of Da Costa and other imprisoned gang leaders.

Gang members also distributed a manifesto that portrayed the Red Command as Robin Hood, the champion of the poor.

"The people can see that the real delinquents are not in the slums, nor behind bars; they are in the highest level of politics," read one flier. "Among all the inmates of this country is there one who had committed a crime as heinous as killing a nation with poverty and hunger?"

Few Rio residents say they accept such statements at face value. In the city's favelas, the drug dealers rule by fear. They run a parallel economy with an elaborate division of labor, in which even children are recruited to play a role in the sale and distribution of cocaine and other drugs.

The children become "airplanes" who deliver drug buyers to the drug vendors, called vapor men, says Geraldo Tadeu Moreira, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro who has studied the drug economy. The couriers who keep the entire operation supplied are called mules, with each cog in the system earning a small cut of the drug profits.

Step out of line, or work against the system, and you run the risk of being killed by one of the "soldiers," young men who usually work for a salary of $1,000 per month, almost 10 times the wage of a typical laborer.

"They impose order through force," Moreira said. An accused rapist might be executed in an eye-for-an-eye style justice that is brutal and swift. A man will be forced to pay a debt to his neighbor under penalty of death.

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