Brazil Wants To Shed Image As Haven For The World's Fugitives


By Peter Muello, The Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Hunted by police in California, Jesse James Hollywood took a friend's advice and caught a plane to Rio, where he lived the high life and thought the law wouldn't touch him. For five years, he was right.

Despite being wanted in Santa Barbara for the kidnapping and killing of a 15-year-old boy, Hollywood didn't lie low. He moved around the Copacabana beach district, toured the country and settled in a paradisiacal beach resort near Rio.

It seemed like a familiar script.

For decades, Brazil was a prime destination for Nazi war criminals, disgraced dictators, fugitive mobsters and common criminals on the lam. England's great train robber, Ronald Biggs, even recorded the dance song "Run to Rio" during his stay.

Police bridle at the suggestion that Brazil is soft on crime, and the government has tried to close the holes that allowed fugitives like Hollywood in. But still, the end of Hollywood's saga caught many Brazilians by surprise.

Acting on an FBI tip, Brazilian federal police nabbed the fugitive in a shopping mall in early March and deported him a day later _ record time in Brazil, where legal proceedings can drag on for years. Because Hollywood entered the country illegally, he wasn't extradited _ but simply expelled.

"Most international fugitives come here on somebody's advice. It was a Brazilian who told Hollywood to come here, marry, have kids, and it would be hard for us to expel him," said Wanderley Martins, a federal police inspector and local Interpol chief. "Unfortunately, it's true."

Stung by its negative image, Brazil has tried to tighten controls over foreigners. In the 1980s, the government signed extradition treaties with many countries, reregistered foreign residents and redoubled efforts to control its vast borders.

Martins cited the case of Mexican pop diva Gloria Trevi, who was recently acquitted in Mexico of sexually abusing young girls in her entourage. Arrested in Brazil in 2000, Trevi became pregnant and gave birth in prison but was nevertheless extradited with her son in 2002.

"They think we're flexible with criminals," Martins said. "We proved we're not."

Brazil wasn't the only Latin American country to take in Nazi fugitives. Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped by Israel's spy agency in Argentina, and Gestapo leader Klaus Barbie was discovered in Bolivia.

Mexico, just across the U.S. border, has long been a destination of choice for U.S. fugitives. In 2003, rapist Andrew Luster, heir to the Max Factor fortune, was captured by bounty hunters in Puerto Vallarta and returned to the United States. Illinois native Michael Alfonso, accused of murder and listed among the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives, was captured in Veracruz last year.

Still, Brazil's image as a haven for the world's jetsam dates back decades, and may be hard to shed.

Franz Stangl, who commanded the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland, worked as a manager at the Volkswagen factory in Sao Paulo. Former SS officer Gustav Franz Wagner was arrested in southern Brazil after he was spotted at a birthday party for Adolf Hitler.

Mafia kingpin Tommaso Buscetta, who testified against the mob in the famed "pizza connection" case in the United States, ran a cocaine network from Rio in the 1980s until his arrest and extradition to Italy.

American fugitives also were notorious. Benjack Cage, convicted of insurance fraud in Texas, was a well-known figure. Joe Conforte, the former owner of Nevada's Mustang Ranch brothel and wanted for some $13 million in back taxes, lives in a beachfront penthouse and is often seen dining out or in his box at Rio's race track.

Biggs was probably the best-known fugitive. Convicted of robbing $7.3 million _ worth about $50 million by today's standards _ from the Glasgow-to-London mail train in 1963, Biggs broke out of England's Wandsworth Prison, eluded Scotland Yard and turned up in Rio in 1970.

Brazil had no extradition treaty with England, and Biggs _ the father of a son by a Brazilian mother _ couldn't be deported. The charming rogue became a hero to many Brazilians, who paid to attend pool-side barbecues in his home in Rio's hills. Finally, aging and sick, Biggs voluntarily returned to England and prison in 2001.

"Surveillance and police activities here are lax," said David Fleischer, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. Hollywood "obviously wasn't Brazilian. Police should have checked up on him."

The blond Californian was a familiar sight jogging with his pit bulls on the beach in Saquarema, 60 miles east of Rio. He taught English and cashed in dollars sent by his family, awaited the birth of his son with young Marcia Reis and enjoyed feisty drinking bouts in the local bars.

"He liked to socialize, but he had a short fuse," said Interpol's Martins. "He'd fight with bar owners about the beer tab. That was his nature."

It all fell apart suddenly. The FBI learned that Hollywood was expecting a visit from a cousin and tipped off Brazilian police. Federal agents arrested him without a struggle at a Saquarema shopping mall, shipped him to Rio and put him on a plane for California to face charges of kidnapping and murder.

An arraignment is scheduled for April 4. If convicted of killing 15-year-old Nick Markowitz, he could face the death penalty.

Markowitz was abducted on Aug. 6, 2000, as he walked near his San Fernando Valley home. He spent two days with his captors before they killed him because of a $1,200 drug debt, according to grand jury testimony. He was forced to walk a mile into Los Padres National Forest before being shot nine times and buried in a shallow grave.

"The quick expulsion was a very good show," said political scientist Fleischer. "It was a wise decision."

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