Considering that Brazil is the second-biggest market for cocaine in the world, relatively little is known about the shadowy networks that connect it to drug producing nations in the region, especially compared to the drug cartels that have become almost household names in the United States.
For that reason, Rio de Janeiro-based newspaper Extra’s recent attempt to identify the biggest players in the (exclusively) South American drug trade is impressive. The investigation series, a result of six months’ research and interviews with Brazilian, Peruvian, Bolivian and Paraguayan authorities, lays out the big names in what Extra refers to as “Narcosul,” a play on the name of the Mercosur trading bloc.
Certain names on the list are well-known to regional security analysts, like Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, alias “Marcola,” the imprisoned head of the São Paulo-based First Capital Command (PCC) prison gang. But the majority of kingpins identified by the paper have relatively low profiles, and appear to be known by few outside of law enforcement circles.
The biggest of these is Luiz Carlos da Rocha, also known as “Cabeça Branca,” or “White Head.” The 55-year-old Brazilian national is believed to be living in Paraguay, where he allegedly oversees a large-scale smuggling operation that moves Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine into Brazil across the porous Paraguayan border. According to Brazilian Federal Police, Cabeça Branca buys product mainly in Peru’s Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) and Bolivia’s Chapare regions.
Other figures identified by Extra as the “ambassadors of Narcosul” operate in more isolated regions in the north, particularly in frontier regions in the border state of Amazonas. This includes Peruvian Jair Ardela Michue, who along with his brother Wilder built a major drug trafficking empire that linked a network of coca cultivators and laboratories in the Amazon Tri-border Region with distributors in the state capital of Manaus. From there, shipments were split either north to the Trans-Atlantic route or south to the consumer markets of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
Wilder and Jair were arrested in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but their smuggling routes remain as popular as ever.
Extra’s investigation exposes these and other big fish of the Southern Cone, responsible for supplying cocaine, marijuana and other illicit substances to Brazil, and in some cases shipping them on to the more lucrative European market. According to the paper’s estimates, South American trafficking networks pull in an astounding $9 billion from drug sales annually. To put this into perspective, the US State Department claims Mexican cartels earn between $19 billion and $29 billion from trafficking illicit substances.
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The $9 billion figure, which the paper bases off on “the average price of cocaine produced in the region to be exported to Europe,” is likely inflated, as it doesn’t account for sales in Brazil. Still, shedding light on the underworld leaders who oversee the drug flow into the world’s second-largest cocaine consumer (after the US) highlights some important trends.
The first of these is the difficulty that Brazil has in policing its borders. Unlike the trafficking dynamic in the US, the overland flow of drugs isn’t largely confined to one border. Instead, there are various countries with smuggling routes leading into Brazil — a product of sharing borders with the world’s three biggest cocaine producers: Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.
In addition to the Paraguayan border and the Amazon networks, another popular method of entry is flying product in from Bolivia, and unloading it in the western states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. As Extra reports, one of the most notorious kingpins of this route is Lourival Maximo da Fonseca, alias “Tião,” who is believed to be operating out of the eastern Bolivia department of Santa Cruz.
Analysts agree that the lion’s share of Brazil’s cocaine comes from Peru and Bolivia, but there is considerable debate over the breakdown between the two. In 2011, just over half of all cocaine shipments seized in Brazil (54 percent) came from Bolivia, compared to 38 percent from Peru and 7.5 percent from Colombia. However, Bolivian authorities insist that the majority of this cocaine is actually produced in Peru, and the emergence of a so-called “air bridge” to Brazil via Bolivia supports this claim.
Tracking these networks points to another trend in transnational drug trafficking in the southern hemisphere: the fact that all of them rely on corrupt officials and kickbacks to law enforcement to operate. This is part of the reason individuals like Tião and Cabeça Branca are able to hide out so successfully in remote areas in the periphery of Bolivia and Paraguay. In the latter case, even though the kingpin has been operating in the eastern Paraguayan province of Amambay since the mid-1990s and owns large swaths of property there through third parties, the National Anti-Drugs Secretariat (SENAD) has never successfully detained him.
Cabeça Branca’s case provides some useful insight into how the kind of social circles traffickers run in facilitate their business. His organization has reportedly bought off key political and police officials at almost every level in Amambay. Before his arrest in September 2013, one his lieutenants, Carlos Ruben Sanchez Garcete, alias “Chicharõ,” was an alternate for a sitting congressman. What’s more, that lawmaker’s younger brother — a police official with the Amambay police intelligence unit — was arrested in March for tipping off Chicharõ about police operations and investigations in the area.
Other elements of Brazil’s drug trafficking dynamic also suggest major differences between it and the illicit drug trade that winds up through Central America and Mexico to the US. For one thing, it appears to be more peaceable, or at least less viscerally violent, lacking in the massacres and gory killings that have defined turf wars between Mexican cartels in recent years.
On the US-Mexico border, this is generally interpreted as a sign that a single group has established dominance over the local “plaza.” Of course, there are major transnational crime syndicates in Brazil, like the PCC and Red Command (CV). And there is plenty of evidence that these groups have established drug trafficking networks stretching to Bolivia and Paraguay. But the existence of powerful independent distributors like Cabeça Branca and Tião suggest that Brazil’s most recognizable organized crime factions lack the kind of dominance over smuggling routes enjoyed by their Mexican peers. However, reports of growing PCC and CV activity in Brazil’s neighboring countries suggest this dynamic may not be too far off.