This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Making Millions from Behind Bars

When Brazilian authorities extradited Luiz Fernando da Costa (A.K.A. Fernandinho Beira-Mar) from Colombia in early 2001, he was already a well known criminal in Brazil. He had escaped from prison twice, orchestrated a number of assassinations from his prison cell, formed a business relationship with the First Capital Command, had managed to strengthen his Rio de Janeiro-based organized criminal group, known as the Red Command, to the point of unprecedented success, and perhaps most importantly for him, had secured a cocaine-for-guns bartering agreement with the FARC in Colombia.

He was living among the FARC as a fugitive from Brazilian law in 2001 seeking treatment for a gunshot wound when the Colombian military captured him and his girlfriend, Jacqueline Alcantara de Moares, after learning from Fernando’s pilot where they were located deep in the Colombian Amazon. The two lovers were immediately separated. And when Fernando entered the Brazilian justice system, the media portrayed him as Brazil’s top drug trafficker, while the police and politicians called him a small fish in a big pond.

Last week, the Brazilian Federal Police concluded an 18-moth investigation called Operation Felix designed specifically to detect and dismantle Fernando’s drug trafficking network. By the time the Feds had finished their blitz of arrests and seizures during the week of 19 November, they had arrested Jacqueline, now Fernando’s wife, and seized hundreds of thousands of US dollars, and thousands more Brazilian reales, apart from a car wash, a gas distribution depot, and an Internet cafĂ©.

During the investigation, the Feds learned that Fernando, through lawyers, his brother in law, and his wife, had grown his international smuggling network from 2001 from prison. The network includes operations in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, which borders with Paraguay, and the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, which borders Bolivia.

Fernando had operated a ranch in Paraguay, complete with a runway, from where he received cocaine shipments likely from Bolivia, a second country where the Federal Police think he has long-standing contacts. Fernando’s relationship with the FARC never ended, as evidence from messages seized at Jacqueline’s house in a Rio de Janeiro suburb proved.

The Federal Police now admit that Fernando, along with his wife, commanded a network of organized criminal groups across Brazil, providing them with cocaine and other supplies, while taking a cut off the top. His wife alone earned some US$250,000 a month from the Rio branch of their enterprise, focused mainly on supplying the Red Command – perhaps others - with drugs and guns. This is not much money by Colombian or Mexican standards, but an exceptional amount of money considering the man behind the business has been literally behind bars since 2001.

This case is another reason why Latin America needs a regional police force. Ameripol is already in place, but we’re not sure if it will have any effect, as information and intelligence sharing is tricky business.

Meanwhile, news out of Venezuela indicates that the military there is not at all happy with Chavez’s proposed Constitutional reforms, to be voted upon by popular referendum on 2 December. According to the Miami Herald, one of Chavez’s reforms would have nurfed the National Guard, placing more importance on the so-called “Territorial Guard”. Many viewed this move as one that would put more power in the hands of the men and women most loyal to Chavez.

High-level officers, unhappy with this change, circulated emails, while in Fort Tiuna, the country’s largest barracks based in Caracas, anti-reform pamphlets were passed among the rank and file. This particular proposal was made public on 15 August. And Chavez removed it from the list on 25 August – an interesting indication of the influence the military still has on the Venezuelan president.

Finally, seven people fell to the death in Salvador de Bahia while attending a soccer game there. The section of stadium seating where these unfortunate fans were jumping and screaming for their team fell away (see photo of the missing section and ambulance on the street below). Such infrastructure problems continue to plague Brazil, especially in the aviation sector. But the death of soccer fans due to poorly maintained stadium seating is an embarrassing incident in a country that has recently accepted the vote to host the World Cup in 2014.

REUTERS/Welton-agencia O Globo

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