In early July, authorities in Brazil captured one of the world’s most wanted drug trafficking suspects: Luiz Carlos da Rocha, alias “Cabeça Branca.” With the legendary figure now behind bars, InSight Crime looks at what might come next for Brazil’s criminal landscape.
On a sunny Saturday morning in Sorriso, a small city in Brazil’s soy farming frontier state of Mato Grosso, a man known as Vitor Luiz de Moraes strolled into his local bakery to buy bread.
As he waited at the counter, two men in jeans and black t-shirts appeared. They aimed pistols at him and ordered him to the ground, then handcuffed him.
The scene must have seemed strange to onlookers. Dressed in a plain white t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with barely any money in his pocket, there was little indication that the man under arrest was actually one of Latin America’s most wanted fugitives.
Nor would it have been obvious that the men detaining him were Brazilian Federal Police officers making the biggest arrest of one of the most extensive operations in the organization’s history.
Brazil’s ‘Pablo Escobar’
“Vitor Luiz de Moraes” was in fact one of several false identities used by Luiz Carlos da Rocha, better known as “Cabeça Branca,” or “White Head” — a man who was sought by authorities in multiple countries, was wanted by Brazil’s Federal Police for three decades, and was considered by some to be the most powerful drug trafficker in Latin America.
The same day as Cabeça Branca’s arrest, raids across six Brazilian cities in the states of São Paulo and Paraná seized $4.5 million in cash tied to his organization as well as a ton and a half of cocaine, apparently destined for Europe.
Elvis Secco, the Federal Police officer who led the operation, told InSight Crime in a phone interview that Cabeça Branca “was undoubtedly one of the biggest drug traffickers on the planet.”
SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles
Secco said the 58-year old Cabeça Branca, dubbed the “Pablo Escobar” of Brazil, moved around $1.2 billion worth of cocaine, shipping on average five tons a month to Europe, as well as Africa and the United States. Authorities estimate he accumulated some $100 million in profits, though the true figures could be much higher.
These cash sums make other famous Brazilian drug lords like Fernandinho Beira-Mar of the Red Command (Comado Vermelho) and Marcola of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) look like petty dealers in comparison.
However, Cabeça Branca was far from the stereotypical figure portrayed by the Brazilian media. He was born into the relative comfort of a middle class home in Londrina, Paraná, and even served in the Brazilian army, getting a Dodge Polara Zero as a present from his father when he left, Brazil’s O Globo reported.
“The Brazilian media pushes the image that favela guys like Marcola (PCC) and Fernandinho (CV) are the big time dealers, but this is really not the case,” said journalist Allan de Abreu.
“Drug trafficking in big quantities requires land, access to planes and heavy vehicles, something Cabeça Branca had in abundance,” he added.
A Criminal Empire
Now, nearly four months after his arrest, prosecutors from Brazil’s famed “Car Wash” corruption scandal, also fittingly labeled the largest in the country’s history, have been called to assist with the investigation into Cabeça Branca’s vast criminal empire.
He is thought to have laundered huge amounts of money in offshore accounts as well rural properties, including a farm in Paraguay with 26,000 cows.
Orchestrating such a huge operation while avoiding capture for so long required an extensive network of corrupted officials in Brazil’s frontier states as well as in neighboring Paraguay, authorities say.
“The network of corruption he had was ridiculous: port staff, police, prosecutors, judges, politicians. He had all the privileged information,” police investigator Secco told InSight Crime.
The operation to take down Cabeça Branca was given the code name “Spectrum” on account of the ability of the crime boss to avoid capture. (Spectrum means “ghost” in Latin.) And just eight Federal Police officers, handpicked by Secco, knew the details.
The kingpin’s tentacles of corruption stretched so far that Secco only revealed the true identity of the target of the operation to the rest of the officers involved once the arrest was made.
In addition to corruption, Cabeça Branca’s non-violent, business-first approach is considered key to his success; his subtle operating methods tended not to attract attention from authorities.
The crime boss also changed his identity several times as part of his efforts to evade capture, using plastic surgery to alter his physical appearance on three occasions.
At the time of his arrest, he was posing as a soy farmer. He had at least four false identities: two Brazilian, one Uruguayan and one Paraguayan. Even his wife, his fourth when he was arrested, said she didn’t know his true identity.
The ‘Country Route’
Authorities say the cocaine managed by Cabeça Branca’s organization was flown from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia and stored in large rural properties in Paraguay and Brazil’s frontier states. It was then hidden in fake compartments of trucks and driven through the vast São Paulo countryside, a trafficking pattern known as the “Country Route” (“Rota Caipira”).
In his book about the flow of drugs along this path, journalist Allan de Abreu notes the importance of geography in the development of the route.
“On one side of the route you have the key supply countries: Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay. On the other, the consumption centers, São Paulo and Rio,” he said.
Cabeça Branca’s cocaine would then be stored in depositories in São Paulo or Paraná, waiting for it to be exported, usually via the port of Santos, the busiest in Latin America.
Known as a “baron” of the drug trade, he also supplied the biggest players in Brazil’s domestic drug trade, like Rio’s Red Command and São Paulo’s PCC.
Experts are divided on the impact that Cabeça Branca’s arrest will have on the Brazilian and international drug trade.
Federal Police officer Secco told InSight Crime that authorities are worried that the PCC, Brazil’s largest and most powerful gang, would try to fill the vacuum created by Cabeça Branca’s arrest.
Lacking the knowledge and expertise of Cabeça Branca, Secco said he fears the incursion of the PCC could come with an increase in violence, especially around Brazil’s borders, as rival factions fight for control of logistic routes.
“We’re worried that this shit hole country that we call Brazil could turn into another Mexico,” he said with a touch of humor. “But we are taking preventive measures to stop this from happening.”
Indeed, the PCC seems to have begun an aggressive campaign of regional expansion recently. And the gang’s war with its one-time ally, the Red Command, was blamed for a surge in deaths during prison confrontations in Brazil earlier this year.
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
A recent uptick in violence in Brazil’s northeastern states has also been attributed to franchises of the group warring with local factions allied with the Red Command.
Something similar has been observed in the Paraguay border region. Police have accused the PCC of ordering the killing of local drug kingpin Jorge Rafaat Toumani last year. The murder of Rafaat, a business associate of Cabeça Branca’s more than a decade ago, was carried out with a powerful firearms capable of taking down a helicopter, and was thought to be an effort to consolidate the PCC’s dominance on the Paraguay border.
On the other hand, some observers say regional drug trade dynamics may not change radically, at least in the short term.
“There is of course the hypothesis that he also continues to control everything from inside prison,” said Rafael Saliés, Senior Consultant at Southern Pulse private intelligence service.
And journalist de Abreu said that Cabeça Branca’s arrest wouldn’t end the use of the “Country Route.”
“The roads are extensive, well-paved and hardly checked by police,” he said. “For planes, the weather is good and the land relatively flat. All of this, plus the strategic location means the drug flow will never stop.”