Brazilian police nab 'phantom' cocaine kingpin

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - One of South America's biggest cocaine kingpins, who evaded police for three decades and even underwent surgery to change his face, has been captured, Brazilian authorities said Saturday.

Luiz Carlos da Rocha, nicknamed White Head, was arrested in the western state of Mato Grosso in a city called Sorriso, which means "smile," the federal police said in a statement.

Da Rocha had changed his name to Vitor Luiz de Moraes and undergone plastic surgery to successfully dodge police while continuing to run his international drug business.

His alleged right-hand man was also captured in a separate location during the operation in which police said 150 agents carried out 24 raids, seizing an estimated $10 million worth of luxury cars, aircraft, farms and other property.

The name of the operation was "Spectrum," referring in Portuguese to the phantom-like nature of a fugitive "who lived discreetly and in the shadows... evading police attempts for almost 30 years," the police statement said.

Police said that in addition to using extreme violence da Rocha was being protected by forces with heavy caliber weapons.

When narcotics police homed in on their suspect in Mato Grosso, agents studied "photographic data with the old facial characteristics of Luiz Carlos da Rocha and the current identity photograph of Vitor Luiz de Moraes, and concluded that Luiz Carlos da Rocha and Vitor Luiz are the same person."

The captured fugitive is accused of having headed an enormous cocaine network, which included production in the jungles of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, and continued through to distribution on the continent and as far away as the United States and Europe.

He is also accused of being one of the main suppliers to the violent drug traffickers that hold sway in large areas of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Cocaine would be flown in small planes from manufacturing points via Venezuelan airspace to remote farms in western Brazil. From there it would be shipped in secret compartments in specially adapted lorries to Brazil's big cities or for shipment abroad, police said.

Da Rocha is believed to have amassed $100 million in personal wealth in the form of vehicles, property and deposits in offshore bank accounts, which authorities said "will be the subject of the second phase of Operation Spectrum."

While ruthless drug dealers are a constant and visible presence in Brazil's favelas, the wholesale -- and far more lucrative -- end of the trade is largely hidden.

Less than a week ago, however, there was a dramatic glimpse into the shadowy business when an air force jet fired a warning shot to force a small plane to land in Goias state in western Brazil. The suspect aircraft was found to contain half a ton of cocaine.