Why you should care
Because it’s about much more than samba and beaches.
This is third in a series on the world’s most violent prisoners.
Seaside Freddy is a bespectacled, genial-looking guy in his late 40s who, in his T-shirt and shorts, vibes like a high school gym teacher. He lives in Brazil’s northwest corner, about 1,800 miles from the beaches and sometimes cinematic ease of Rio de Janeiro, in one of the most deforested places in the Amazon. His bachelor pad, however, is a government-run maximum security penitentiary, and we’re presuming his duds are government-issue. And in very real terms, he is not any kind of gym teacher. From reportedly buying $10 million a month of cocaine from the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to having the ears, feet and hands of a romantic rival cut off with a chain saw right before disappearing the contested former girlfriend, this is probably the toughest bastard son of a housemaid there ever was.
Since February 2012, Fernandinho Beira-Mar, born Luiz Fernando da Costa and jailed since 2002, has lived in a federal prison in Rondônia. It’s the reward for the staggering amount of mayhem that this diminutive man — he’s about 5-foot-7 — has moved his hands over as head of the organized crime cartel Comando Vermelho. Originally cobbled together from a motley crew of convicts and left-leaning political prisoners imprisoned during Brazil’s 20-plus-year military dictatorship from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the group doesn’t just dabble in arms dealing, bank robbing, bribery, drugs, fraud, hijacking, loan sharking, money laundering and murder. Given that it controls 38.8 percent of Rio’s most crime-ridden areas, according to media reports, you could say that Beira-Mar’s Comando Vermelho damned near wrote the book.
Death is the only thing that will stop him.
André Felix, BOPE officer
From an early life of crime to full-fledged gang membership in 1988, the then-21-year-old Beira-Mar, it was discovered, had a knack for both the clear-eyed brutality and the brainy attention to detail seemingly necessary to do well in this line of work. You’d see FBM spray-painted on everything — houses, commercial real estate — he owned, says banker Sanzio Garcia. “But he’s a crook,” Garcia continues, adding that, in general, people from the favelas might actually like Beira-Mar because “he did more for them than the government” by settling disputes and distributing food and sometimes even money for medicine. “People are tired of the violence,” Garcia says, an opinion sort of seconded by André Felix, long-standing member of Brazil’s Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Special Police Operations Battalion, or more commonly, BOPE — think SWAT if you’re still confused). “You say people in the favelas ‘love’ them, but people in the favelas are afraid of them,” Felix says by phone from Rio where he’s still laid up from gunshot injuries sustained in a favela assault two years ago. Yes, he says, they do bring things the government hasn’t, but they also bring things that people don’t want that the government doesn’t bring: “Murder, murder, murder.”
And if you believe that 13 years of a 320-year prison sentence for drug trafficking, murder and criminal association are enough to curb whatever murderous tendencies the seemingly mild-mannered Beira-Mar had, you might be wrong. (Brazil generally caps prison sentences at 30 years. It made an exception for Seaside Freddy.) In 1996, while serving a long sentence for cocaine possession and trafficking, Beira-Mar walked after just nine months of incarceration, courtesy of a bribe of R$500,000 (about $250,000 back then).
That’s relatively benign, though, when you consider that in 2002, during his time at Rio’s “ultra-secure” Bangu penitentiary, Beira-Mar got his hands on some guns and a full set of keys and then, along with a few of his crew, walked through six security gates to the other end of the prison to murder four rivals. Which is why even though Brazilian law says, in general, no one can serve more than 30 years, for Beira-Mar they’re willing to make an exception. So if you think he’s a nonfactor given his three-plus-century sentence, Felix suggests you think again: “Death is the only thing that will stop him.”
An interesting comment coming from a member of BOPE, which has been widely accused of running death squads guilty of extrajudicial killings, a charge that rankles Felix. “When you have a cancer like this, you have to take extreme measures,” he says. Up until last year and the year before, things in Brazil were getting better and crime was down due to added law enforcement for the World Cup, says Maikon Hensel, a former journalist at TV Centro América Mato Grosso. But Brazil’s economy has been tanking, and Hensel says things will get worse before they get better: “Comando Vermelho uses independent cells so they can adapt well to whatever changes come.”
Probably welcome news to Beira-Mar, whose education continues apace notwithstanding the fact that his last year of formal schooling was eighth grade. “He’s smart,” concludes Felix. “And dangerous. But not good at all for the people that believe he is helping them.”