Drug Panel in Rarefied Territory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

Brazil has become big on the drug trafficking map for a number of understandable reasons. The nation has lengthy borders with South American producers and smugglers of cocaine, heroin and marijuana: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. The strategic locations of major seaports and airports have made them longtime transshipment points for drugs bound for Europe and the United States.

And a population of 160 million, about half of it considered poor, creates a natural drug market. In the late 1980s, violent crime surged in big cities, due largely to increasing consumption of powder cocaine and, later, crack cocaine.

Then, in the 1990s, globalizing drug syndicates spread naturally into ethnically diverse Brazil, which attracts mobsters from elsewhere in Latin America and from the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Additionally, government institutions tend to be weak, and existing criminal organizations, particularly those involved in contraband and gambling, offered drug merchants a ready-made infrastructure. At first, the media and law enforcement officials identified the drug kingpins as the youthful bare-chested desperadoes who fight Wild West-style gun battles in the favelas. But the suspicion on the street was that those doomed young men, who as Biscaia, the congressman from Rio de Janeiro, says, "do not even know where Colombia is," were midlevel chieftains at best.

Time Was Right for Setting Up Commission

Brazilians have grown increasingly fed up with impunity in high places, and that climate favored the creation of the commission last year. It has been spearheaded largely by Congressman Moroni Torgan of Ceara state, a veteran federal police commander and a practicing Mormon. Torgan led a similar investigative panel examining drug mafias five years ago, but the results were disappointing.

So Torgan pushed for a new investigation. This time, many Brazilians say, the anti-drug commission unmasked the bona fide bosses, including politicians charged with providing protection and landowners whose plantations allegedly serve as secret landing strips. Probably because Brazil is economically and culturally decentralized, it has not developed major drug cartels such as those in Colombia and Mexico. But the commission exposed the dots linking regional mafias, suggesting a federation of alarming dimensions.

Authorities allege that Congressman Pascoal's thugs ranged far from Acre, committing crimes and consolidating a network involved not only in drugs but in arms trafficking, truck hijacking and murder for hire. Witnesses said his partners were a state assemblyman in the northeastern state of Maranhao, a now-fugitive business executive in Sao Paulo state charged with being the top money launderer and Congressman Augusto Farias of Alagoas state.

The latter revelation could tie the drug probe to high-level political corruption: Farias is also under investigation in the murder of his brother, Paulo Cesar Farias, a key figure in the bribery scandal that caused the 1992 impeachment of former President Fernando Collor de Mello. Initially, police concluded that the victim--who had worked as a Collor campaign manager--had been slain by his girlfriend as part of a murder-suicide. Now, the anti-drug commission alleges that the forensic pathologist falsified results in that autopsy and numerous others at the behest of organized crime.

Thus far, the CPI has implicated big fish wherever it has gone. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what will happen when it concludes its mandate and issues a final report, probably in April. How far will the trail go? How many suspects will be convicted? How aggressively will the justice system pursue leads?

"They don't know how they are going to end this," said Amaury De Souza, a political scientist in Rio de Janeiro. "They just can't keep revealing things--they have to come up with a solution. And the federal government doesn't know where to go with it either. But it has huge popular appeal. It is political gold."

Indeed, critics worry about the pitfalls of the lawmakers' high-profile roles as super-sleuths, saying there have been moments of excess and improvisation.

For example, in November the commission came to Rio de Janeiro to question the girlfriend of a fugitive kingpin believed to be hiding in Paraguay with his suppliers. The poised witness held her own, and afterward a newspaper editorial called the episode "a lamentable spectacle," accusing legislators of being unprepared and of bombarding her with inappropriate questions about the romance.

Some legislators also seem intoxicated by the political spotlight. During the Rio de Janeiro hearing, commission President Magno Malta, a preacher who sings in an evangelical band, announced dramatically that the proceedings were being broadcast live to the world on CNN. He was mistaken: The broadcaster was CBN, a Brazilian radio network.

Moreover, lawyers have raised the specter of a witch hunt. Some accuse legislators of trampling the constitutional rights of suspects by threatening to arrest them if they refuse to testify. The legal and political inexperience of the members of the CPI could undermine them, some observers say.

Still, even if the lawmakers occasionally stumble as they charge around the nation in pursuit of justice, the appeal of the commission is almost irresistible in a country where impunity seems the law of the land, especially for white-collar criminals.

"People see the rich and powerful being accused and some of them going to jail," said Alba Zaluar, a top scholar on drug trafficking. "This is very rare in Brazil. Slowly, things are changing."

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