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Brazil captured a notorious drug boss — then let him go

PCC kingpin André do Rap, convicted for international drug trafficking, walked free on a technicality, sparking a crisis within the Supreme Court

In September 2019, Brazilian police arrested 43-year-old André Oliveira Macedo — a drug kingpin best known as André do Rap — after being on the run for six years. As one of the top brass of the First Command of the Capital (PCC) — Brazil’s largest organized crime gang — André do Rap was hiding out in a luxury mansion in the Rio de Janeiro beach town of Angra dos Reis.

The investigation that led to his arrest was long and painstaking, involving the collaboration of law enforcement agents from Italy and the U.S., as a result of André do Rap’s involvement with transnational drug trafficking. When he was taken in, several of his luxury possessions were seized, including a helicopter, yacht, and a 4×4 Hyundai Tucson.

However, after just one year in custody, André do Rap was set free on a legal technicality. And before the Supreme Court could rectify this mistake, he was already at large, with authorities believing the drug boss has now fled the country.[restricted]

Slipped through their fingers

André do Rap was a key figure within the international expansion of the PCC and its consolidation as South America’s widest reaching drug cartel. His role was to oversee the trafficking of immense quantities of cocaine from the Port of Santos, in São Paulo state, over to Calabria in southwest Italy. From there, the product was picked up by the PCC’s notorious Italian allies ‘Ndrangheta and distributed Europe-wide. 

But despite a sentence of over 25 years in jail for international drug trafficking, André do Rap walked out of jail last Saturday, thanks to a court order by Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello. His lawyers claimed that their client’s preventive detention had not been renewed within the legally stipulated time frame of 90 days — a new rule introduced by the so-called Anti-Crime Bill, ratified by President Jair Bolsonaro in January. Finding this to be true, Justice Marco Aurélio ordered his immediate release.

Indeed, the Supreme Court justice acted according to the law, later affirming in an interview to TV Globo that he made the decision as a member of the Supreme Court, “not as the citizen Marco Aurélio Mello.” “The law is there to be complied with and followed,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, the decision divided opinion among the Supreme Court, legal scholars, and politicians, once more exposing the complexity of Brazil’s penal system.


Shutting the barn door after the drug dealer has bolted

Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision caused such an immediate stir that Chief Justice Luiz Fux moved to suspend his colleague’s decision the very same day, ordering André do Rap to return to preventive detention immediately. He also put the case on the Supreme Court’s docket for Wednesday afternoon, where a majority of justices are expected to vote against Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision.

However, in the interim between the release order and Chief Justice Fux’s suspension, André do Rap had already walked out the front door of a São Paulo penitentiary, where he was driven off by a luxury car after informing authorities he would be staying at a house in the coastal São Paulo town of Guarujá. Once his re-arrest was ordered, police could not locate him in Guarujá, nor at the homes of his family and friends. The Federal Police believes he has fled to Paraguay or Bolivia, where the PCC has established operations.

Political backlash after drug

In Congress, a group of supporters of President Bolsonaro are maneuvering to submit bills to remove the mandatory review of preventive detentions from Brazil’s penal code. Figures close to the president say that Justice Marco Aurélio Mello made an error in his decision, claiming he should have assessed the case at hand and ruled that release was not an option, due to the significant danger posed by the prisoner.

Former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, by way of his press office, declared that he was against the inclusion of the mandatory 90-day review of preventive detentions in January’s new penal legislation. “The article was not in the original draft of the Anti-Crime Bill and I, as Justice Minister, was opposed to its insertion for fear of automatic releases of dangerous prisoners as a result of the mere passing of time.”

Domino effect

At least two individuals in prison for international drug trafficking have already made similar requests for release to the Supreme Court. One, arrested in 2016, is serving a 33-year sentence, while the other is facing 35 years.

As added intrigue to the existing fiasco, online magazine Crusoé revealed that the law firm providing André do Rap’s defense has a former aide to Justice Marco Aurélio Mello among its partners. Asked about this during a telephone interview to CNN Brasil on Tuesday, the justice criticized the question and hung up the phone. “That is defamation. This interview is over,” he said.

So far this year, Justice Marco Aurélio Mello has granted at least 79 release requests based on the provision of mandatory renewal of preventive detentions. The number could be even higher, as a single habeas corpus plea may benefit more than one individual.[/restricted]

By Renato Alves

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