Police say Brazil's top drug lord telling all
DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil (AP) -- Just past a hog wallow in the slum of
Beira Mar, a crude sign by a prayer hall reads: "This is the path of your
salvation." Beside it, the spray-painted letters "FBM" point to a different
route to deliverance from the dead-end life of poverty.
The letters stand for Fernandinho Beira Mar -- which translates from
Portuguese as "Seaside Freddy" -- a nickname for Luiz Fernando da Costa, once
Brazil's biggest drug trafficker. Da Costa took that other way out of Beira Mar,
rising from street tough to key figure in the international narcotics trade.
When he was captured last month after a massive manhunt in the jungles
Colombia, police paraded da Costa before TV cameras as public enemy No. 1.
At a hemispheric summit of 34 national leaders in Quebec, Canada, diplomats
interrupted President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to give him the news.
Today, as the reputed link between arms merchants in Surinam, Brazilian
dealers and Colombian guerrillas, da Costa remains in the spotlight even behind
bars. Police say he has named politicians, businessmen and police officers as
having links to the drug trade, and what he reveals could open a new chapter in
the international war on drugs.
But in the shantytown of Beira Mar, people recall him as a bright, hungry
eager to get ahead and, later, as a gentleman of means and a community
benefactor who sometimes paid the bills of those in need and supplied medicine
to the sick.
"People here have nothing against him," said one long-time resident who
not to be identified. "When I saw him on the news I felt sorry for him. It could
have been my son."
It's easy to get lost in Beira Mar, a squalid shantytown of 4,000 people,
squeezed between a highway and Guanabara Bay in the sprawling suburb of
Duque de Caxias, just north of Rio de Janeiro. A maze of packed-dirt paths
leads past shacks slapped together from tin sheets and scrap wood. Pigs root in
mounds of garbage, and the stink of raw sewage rises ripely in the midday sun.
"We have nothing, and the city does not help," sighed Graca Ferreira, an
attendant at the community's Residents' Center. Behind her, posters offer
hot-line numbers to save children from prostitution and drug addiction -- two
powerful lures for kids in Beira Mar.
Da Costa, the son of a housemaid and a father he never knew, dropped out
school after eighth grade and drifted into petty crime and robbery. In 1988, at
age 21, he joined a drug gang and quickly moved up through the ranks.
Within three years, da Costa was a drug lord in Beira Mar and the owner
dozens of houses and properties. His place in the neighborhood hierarchy was
apparent from the "FBM" signs that supporters spraypainted on buildings.
Then, with police after him, da Costa moved his operations to neighboring
Minas Gerais state. In 1996, he was arrested with 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds) of
cocaine and convicted of trafficking. But after barely nine months in jail, he
escaped -- reportedly for a $250,000 bribe (500,000 reals) -- and dropped from
Moving along Brazil's porous border with Paraguay, far from the spotlight,
Costa became a major wholesaler of cocaine to selling points in urban slums.
His range of operations was unprecedented in Brazil, officials said.
"He has many associates all over Brazil and abroad, but he was unquestionably
the boss," said public prosecutor Marcio Nobre. "That's what makes him
The first many Brazilians heard of da Costa was during a 1999 probe into
trafficking, when his name kept coming up in connection with cocaine
movements around the country.
Powerful, charming and elusive, da Costa seemed larger than life. Women
supposedly found this short, swarthy man irresistible, and several ex-girlfriends
stayed with him as aides and accomplices.
He also was capable of almost unimaginable brutality.
Federal police intercepted a phone call in which da Costa ordered the torture
a man who had dated one of the trafficker's former girlfriends. Transcripts
showed da Costa telling gang members to cut off the man's hands, feet and ears
with a chain saw before shooting him. The woman, Joelma do Nascimento,
later went to meet da Costa in Paraguay. She was never heard from again.
But it was his exploits in Colombia that set da Costa apart. According
Colombian military, he hooked up with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, providing cash and weapons smuggled from Suriname in
exchange for cocaine and protection.
Josias Quintal, the Rio de Janeiro state security chief who went after
in Colombia, said the Brazilian paid the guerrillas some dlrs 10 million a month
and planned to set up the "Rio Cartel," a continent-wide distribution network
based in Brazil.
Da Costa appeared to be the missing link between traffickers and FARC,
admits to "taxing" poor peasants who grow coca -- the plant used to make
cocaine -- but always denied it had ties with international smugglers.
The Brazil-Colombia connection was just what U.S. security officials had
warned about at a hemispheric meeting of defense ministers in Brazil last
October, when they tried to drum up support for the $7.5 billion "Colombia
Plan" to eradicate drugs.
"Beira-Mar, who started out as a local drug boss in Rio, has become an
international problem," U.S. Charge d'Affaires Cristobal Orozco said in April,
shortly before da Costa's capture.
His operation began to unravel in February, when a massive military crackdown
known as Operation Black Cat tracked down da Costa in the jungles. He was
wounded in a shootout but got away -- along with Tomas Medina, a FARC
commander thought to be one of the group's top finance men.
In April, da Costa tried to slip back into Brazil, but his small plane
down in Colombian territory. Trapped in the jungle, he surrendered on April 21
and was deported back to Brazil.
With two convictions for drug trafficking and facing charges of murder
criminal association, da Costa could be sentenced to up to 66 years in prison,
although Brazilian law says no one can serve more than 30.
Many wonder if he will survive to testify, much less do time.
Quintal, the Rio security chief, said he was "surprised" by da Costa's
about authorities allegedly involved in the drug trade. He said the arrest was a
blow to the Brazilian drug trade, but conceded that da Costa's operation
eventually would be rebuilt by gang colleagues.
"They'll be back, but it was a major setback," Quintal said. "He is the
drug trafficker in Brazil. This is a very big blow to narcotrafficking."
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.