Authorities in a Paraguayan border town arrested a man identified as one of Brazil’s most wanted drug traffickers, in a warning that the Rio de Janeiro’s crime bosses have found new refuges as the city takes control of its favelas.
On October 19, police announced the capture of Alexander Mendes da Silva, alias “Polegar,” once a key member of feared Brazilian prison gang the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). Mendes was arrested in Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan town which police have described as the most important smugglers’ point for weapons and drugs destined for Brazil, according to the Guardian.
Mendes, who arrested on charges of carrying false identification papers, should be extradited to Brazil by next week, authorities said.
His arrest could mark the end of a long criminal career. Mendes first catapulted to national attention in Brazil when he masterminded a break-out from Rio de Janeiro’s Polinter prison. In an operation carefully planned to free several top Red Command operatives from captivity, Mendes and 40 others used a truck to block the highway leading to the prison, then drove a car through the penitentiary walls. Fourteen alleged leaders of the Red Command escaped.
Mendes was arrested a year later in 2002 and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment on drug trafficking charges. After seven years in jail, he escaped when authorities granted him house arrest. According to some accounts, he drove out of the neighborhood, accompanied by his partner, in a police car.
Afterwards, he reportedly moved into one of Rio de Janeiro’s most crime-ridden shantytowns, Mangueira, which has a population of 3,500. He allegedly became deeply involved in Mangueira’s drug trade, and police soon began identifying him as one of Rio’s most wanted criminals, offering a reward of around $1 million for information on his whereabouts. In a neighboring favela, the Complexo de Alemao, he maintained a luxury mansion with a rooftop swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and a mural of U.S. pop star Justin Bieber on the wall (see photo, above).
In November 2010, after Brazilian forces launched an operation to wrest control of Complexo de Alemao from local gangs, Mendes managed to escape yet again. Some rumors say he fled his luxury mansion by sliding down an escape pipe into a nearby river. Police then intensified their attempts to track Mendes down, arresting his romantic partner in November 2010 and launching search operations in Mangueira shortly afterwards.
That Paraguayan authorities managed to capture Mendes in a crime-ridden border town is one sign that the increased cooperation between Brazilian and Paraguayan law enforcement may yet bring significant results. This push towards greater intelligence sharing between the two countries comes amid new concerns that Brazilian gangs are increasingly basing their operations in Paraguay. That Mendes chose to make his new home in Pedro Juan Caballero, reportedly working in the used car trade (an industry associated with money laundering in the region), suggests that he found the pressure from the security forces in Brazil too much. This is one encouraging sign that Brazil is managing to create an inhospitable environment for key leaders in the drug trade.
But Mendes’ choice to relocate from Rio to Paraguay illustrates another fundamental problem with the government’s “pacification” strategy, in which police are working to re-take control of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas one by one. Complexo de Alemao is the favela where many drug traffickers took refuge, as police set up permanent occupation posts in other neighborhoods. After the security offensive in November 2010, many gangs are now believed to have shifted into other shantytowns not yet occupied by the police.
In some ways, Mendes’ criminal career was partly indicative of this same “domino effect” in crime fighting: efforts to chase gangs out of one neighborhood causes them to regroup and consolidate in another region — be it a neighboring favela or be it southern Paraguay. And aside from continuing to increase cooperation with other countries in the region, there is probably little Brazil can do to address this phenomenon, aside from celebrate the capture of the occasional “big fish” like Mendes.