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The drug smuggling ring within Brazil’s Air Force

. Feb 03, 2021
The drug smuggling ring within Brazil's Air Force Photo: A Soreas/FAB/ASCOM

During the Vietnam War, American drug kingpins managed to move narcotics from Asia to New York with the help of U.S. military servicemen — using military planes. The plan, portrayed in the 2007 crime drama ‘American Gangster,’ was considered to be the largest heroin smuggling operation in U.S. history. Half a century on, the latest sting by Brazil’s Federal Police may have unveiled a similar, albeit smaller, drug-smuggling scheme.

The case began on June 26, 2019, a day that lives in infamy in the history of the Brazilian Air Force. In Seville Airport, 38-year-old Air Force Sergeant Manoel Silva Rodrigues was arrested with 39 kilos of cocaine stored in his hand luggage. He was serving as a flight attendant for the presidential convoy, being part of the backup team accompanying President Jair Bolsonaro to the G20 Summit of that year, in Osaka.

</p> <p>The case sparked the beginning of a long and secretive Federal Police investigation, which has now led to a new round of arrests of individuals linked to the Armed Forces. Marshals believe that Sgt. Rodrigues had regularly smuggled drugs on Air Force planes since 2011, being a part of at least 29 official trips, including presidential convoys to other countries.</p> <p>While details of the investigation have been kept confidential, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> understands that at least ten people have been targeted — including the wife Sgt. Rodrigues and three companies suspected of being used as money laundering fronts.</p> <h2>Links to the &#8216;Ecstasy Baron&#8217;</h2> <p>Courts ordered the sequestration of real estate and vehicles belonging to those involved in the criminal scheme, among them a property valued at BRL 4 million (USD 750,000) in a wealthy Brasília neighborhood and a fitness gym in the federal capital.</p> <p>&#8220;With regard to money laundering, the investigation highlights several strategies used by the criminal group to conceal the proceeds of narcotics trafficking, principally the acquisition of vehicles and real estate paid for with large amounts of cash,&#8221; said the Federal Police, in a statement.</p> <p>Marshals have not disclosed the names of the suspects, but <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> understands that the criminal group has links to convicted drug dealer Michele Tocci, the so-called &#8220;Ecstasy Baron.&#8221; The son of a former Italian diplomat, Mr. Tocci was given a six-year jail sentence in 2008 for leading an international drug trafficking gang which transported cocaine to the Netherlands and smuggled ecstasy, cannabis, and hashish to Brasília.</p> <p>Tuesday&#8217;s Federal Police sting targeted individuals linked to Mr. Tocci&#8217;s gang, including Augusto Cesar de Almeida Lawall, who is a suspect in another federal drug trafficking inquiry. In Brazil, the punishment for conspiring to sell drugs and money laundering range from three to ten years in prison.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Sgt. Rodrigues is serving a six-year prison sentence in Seville. In September of last year, Spanish courts denied a request to transfer the prisoner to Brazil.</p> <p>Spain&#8217;s penal code establishes that those convicted of serious offenses must serve their entire sentence in Spain. Sgt. Rodrigues was initially handed a punishment of eight years in prison, but managed to reduce his penalty on appeal. He must also pay a fine of EUR 2 million.</p> <h2>Air Force investigation making no progress</h2> <p>In an official statement, the Brazilian Air Force assures that it &#8220;works resolutely to curb wrongdoings&#8221; and claims it worked alongside the Federal Police to carry out the necessary measures to further investigations. However, this is far from the truth.</p> <p>Beyond federal investigations, there is also an international drug trafficking case underway in the Military Courts which has stalled since August of last year. Technical conflicts between the courts, the Military Prosecution Office, and defense lawyers has stopped the case from making any progress over the last six months.</p> <p>During the inquiry phase, the Military Courts heard testimony from 37 people in connection with the drug-smuggling operation uncovered in Seville. Among the witnesses are four members of the military currently working within the President&#8217;s Office.</p> <p>Three were directly linked to the presidential delegation to Osaka in 2019 and were en-route to Spain on the day of Sgt. Rodrigues&#8217; arrest. A fourth, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexandre Piovesan, remained in Brazil but has now become a suspect.&nbsp;</p> <p><strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> understands he was among the targets of Tuesday&#8217;s Federal Police sting.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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