issue 224 - October 1991
An iceberg in Brazil
A country that neither grows nor refines coca has become
one of the world’s biggest cocaine exporters. Jan Rocha peers into
an underworld of political bosses, gangs and street children.
Until recently Brazilian police chiefs were remarkably complacent about the drug trade. In June Interpol chief Edson de Oliveira denied Brazil was becoming a major route. Asked about Rondônia, the western Amazon state where a senator was shot dead in a drugs-related assassination last year, he dismissed it as ‘a regional problem’.
But a few days later a man punched a woman in the face and unwittingly revealed the tip of Brazil’s cocaine iceberg. For the man was a congress member, Nobel Moura, and the woman he knocked down as she made a speech on the Congress floor was a fellow representative from Rondônia, Raquel Candido. Candido, a controversial figure herself, was accusing Moura and two other Rondônia congress members of illicit enrichment and involvement in the drug trade. Such unchivalrous behaviour not only earned Moura a month’s suspension but attracted press attention to Rondônia. Stories about the drug trade began to appear.
But this was only the tip – the iceberg itself was revealed in July when São Paulo narcotics police intercepted a lorry carrying half a ton of high-grade cocaine just 20 miles outside the city. The cargo, destined for the port of Santos, was wrapped in brown paper packets each carrying a swastika design.
Even more startling than the size of the consignment was the identity of the two men who had gone to meet it – Nobias and Abidiel Rabelo, brothers of another Rondônia congress member, Jabes Rabelo. What is more, Abidiel carried a credential identifying him as the parliamentary aide to his brother, giving him free access to Congress.
Jabes Rabelo immediately claimed that the credential was false and his signature was a forgery. A police handwriting expert claimed otherwise. A major federal police operation was launched in Rondônia to uncover the operations of the Rabelo brothers – Brazil’s more modest version of the Colombian family drugs organizations.
The Rabelo family, like thousands of others, arrived penniless in Rondônia in the early 1970s. They worked as coffee porters, shoe shine boys, waiters, car salespeople. Now they are among the state’s wealthiest men, owning executive jets, hotels, a construction company, a transport firm and cattle ranches.
Abidiel Rabelo planned to run for mayor at the next election in Cacoal, the town of 80,000 where the family built up its wealth and power base. In the best tradition of the Colombian drug bosses he had begun to take on the role of public benefactor, distributing toys and food at festivals and financing public works. A Rabelo nominee was in charge of the traffic department charged with licensing new cars – in this case stolen ones.
Jabes Rabelo was about to transfer his political allegiance to President Fernando Collor when his brothers were arrested. In fact he was due to be welcomed with other Rondônia congress members by the President himself in a Palace ceremony that had to be hastily cancelled.
Rondônia has been a state for less than 10 years. Even so, it qualified immediately to elect eight congress members and three senators. This is the result of a constitutional reform introduced by one of Brazil’s General-Presidents during the 21-year military regime, which began after a coup in 1964. General Geisel got annoyed with Congress when it refused to vote the right way in 1977. Representation from the more backward north and north-eastern states was increased – that of the more politically advanced south was limited. More states were created out of former territories where dependence on federal funds ensured support in Congress. The result was that Jabes Rabelo could get elected with only 11,000 votes, while in São Paulo he would have needed 100,000.
The large cities like Rio and São Paulo not only provide airports, seaports and highway networks for the drug business but attractive consumer markets too. In Rio many hillside shantytowns have become no-go areas, ruled by drug bosses. Neglected by governments, residents’ needs are met by the bosses in exchange for silence and loyalty. Chronic unemployment and poverty recruit a ready army of young boys for the drug gangs.
The existence of the gangs provides an easy excuse for many of the vigilante killings and extra-judicial murders denounced by organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch. Newspapers like O Povo in Rio (‘You squeeze it, blood drips from it’) offer readers a daily diet of last night’s murders under headlines like ‘Police execute two traffickers’. A half-page picture shows two boys shot down in a favela. But the text reveals that 14-year-old Anderson had nothing to do with drugs, while his 17-year-old friend smoked marijuana.
Among the most vulnerable are Brazil’s seven to eight million street children. Public prosecutor Antonio Carlos Ramozzi, a member of São Paulo’s state drugs council, says that 80 per cent of them use drugs. Shoemakers’ glue is the most common. Ragged children sniffing glue from paper bags are now a common sight in every major city. The street children sniff to forget hunger and cold and their rejection by the society around them.
The drug trade in Brazil cannot be isolated as a police problem. It has to be seen in its political and social context – a fantastic concentration of wealth and land on the one hand and mass migrations of poor, landless people on the other. Austerity programmes that bring poverty and unemployment rather than health and education help to provide both consumers and producers of drugs. And it is no use saving the Amazon rainforest if the people who live there are ruled by drug bosses and consumed by Crack.
Jan Rocha lives in and writes from São Paulo, Brazil.