May 27, 2001

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 of
                 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 drug
                 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 kid
                 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 asked
                 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 of
                 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 of
                 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, da
                 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 drug
                 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 of
                 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 to the
                 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 da Costa
                 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, which
                 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 was forced
                 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 and
                 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 revelations
                 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 biggest
                 drug trafficker in Brazil. This is a very big blow to narcotrafficking."

                   Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.