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Criminal force
Ricardo Soca
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Drug and arms traffickers run their crime enterprises from prison.

President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has pledged to make the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime one of his administration’s top priorities. Da Silva, who will take office Jan. 1 (LP, Nov. 4, 2002), has said he will set up a task force to study more efficient ways to combat the problem.

According to Ib Teixeira of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, violence costs Brazil the equivalent of 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In Brazil’s large cities, violence is daily fare for people of all classes. Among youths between ages 15 and 24, the homicide rate is 86.7 per 100,000 people, second only to Colombia’s.

The results can be seen in the booming private security industry. More than 1,000 security companies employ 1.5 million guards — outnumbering the armed forces — to provide services that cost US$1.8 billion a year.

In the shantytowns known as favelas, drug traffickers frequently fill the vacuum left by the government, taking on the role of benefactor, even though local residents fear and secretly hate them. If a resident becomes ill and the ambulance refuses to enter the favela, the patient is often taken to the hospital in a drug trafficker’s car. Drug traffickers also impose their own brand of harsh, summary justice, however, often including the death penalty.

Officials blame drug traffickers for an assault on Rio de Janeiro’s municipal building in June. No one was killed, but gunmen fired scores of bullets and lobbed two grenades into the building. The attack came shortly after Tim Lopes, a reporter for the O Globo television network, was kidnapped, tortured and killed by drug traffickers while using a concealed camera to document links among the drug trade, street parties and prostitution in a favela.

Each year, about 380,000 cars — the equivalent of 21 percent of the country’s total automobile production — are stolen in Brazil, and arrest warrants are issued for 300,000 people. Much of the organized crime is run by drug traffickers from inside prisons, especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Using mobile phones, they supervise cocaine trafficking, order kidnappings and executions, and negotiate the purchase of weapons, including powerful anti-aircraft missiles, on the international black market.

Earlier this year, prosecutors investigating organized crime in Rio de Janeiro recorded telephone calls made by inmates at the maximum security Bangú 1 prison. The tapes provided information about the operations of drug trafficking rings, their contacts abroad, their high technology equipment and the large amounts of money that flows through the prison with the assistance of corrupt guards.

Among the hundreds of hours of taped conversations was one in which Luiz Fernando da Costa, better known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar, was apparently arranging to the purchase of weapons, including a Stinger missile, although authorities are not sure whether he planned to resell them or use them in Brazil.

Da Costa, who was captured in January in Colombia while negotiating to provide the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) with weapons in exchange for cocaine, heads a criminal gang called the Red Command and controls more than 60 percent of the Rio de Janeiro drug trade from prison. On Sept. 11, he led a prison riot in which Red Command members killed four leaders of the rival Third Command gang in what authorities said was an attempt to gain control of drug sales in at least 35 Rio de Janeiro favelas (LP, Oct. 21, 2002). Da Costa was placed in solitary confinement after the uprising.

In response, two weeks before the Oct. 6 national elections (LP, Oct. 21, 2002), his henchmen brought business to a halt in several Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods, threatening shopkeepers with violence and forcing them to close for the day. In a taped telephone conversation obtained several days later, a drug lord boasted, "They’re afraid of us because they know how powerful we are."

Drug traffickers are just as powerful in São Paulo, the largest city in South America, where 32,132 people were murdered between Jan. 1997 and July 1999, according to the National Security Secretariat. This year, São Paulo police confiscated about 30,000 illegal weapons, including rifles, machine guns, automatic pistols and arms reserved for the military, which can easily be obtained on the black market. São Paulo’s largest criminal gang, the First Capital Command, is also run from prison,

In January, Mayor Celso Daniel of Santo André, a São Paulo municipality, was abducted and murdered (LP, Feb. 11, 2002). Daniel had been chief coordinator of the government platform of the Workers Party (PT), which was founded by the president-elect. After his death, da Silva and Rep. José Dirceu, PT president, met with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and called for a non-partisan alliance to combat violence.

The new government has proposed establishing a national security office that would report directly to the president and be responsible for the federal police and the anti-drug office. PT leaders have also suggested creating a National Public Safety School, merging provincial police forces, investing in intelligence services, increasing the size of the federal police force and creating provincial offices to investigate and combat police corruption.

But da Silva has said that his main weapon for fighting crime will be investment in a social action network to be coordinated by several government ministries. The programs will be aimed at youths living in the favelas, who, because of a lack of educational and job opportunities, are easy prey for organized crime rings looking for recruits (LP, Sept. 23, 2002).

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