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'The Indiana Jones of Latin America' Faces His Personal Temple of Doom

After he helped commit Britain's "Great Train Robbery" in 1963, Ronald Biggs was on the lam. He had roughly a half million dollars as his share of the loot, but where could he go?

Why Brazil, of course.

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As in many other Latin American countries, Brazilian law was often proportionate to the size of one's bank account.

Such was the moral ethos of Brazil that Mr. Biggs felt at home. He had arrived with a suitcase full of money about the time an enraged senator by the name of Arnon de Mello tried to end a political debate by shooting his opponent. (The bullet missed but struck another man.)

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The rich senator, the father of the recently impeached President Fernando Collor de Mello, was never charged. After all, this was Brazil, and Mr. Biggs and Mr. de Mello shared the same wink of impunity.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil's economy was booming, and many people had the same tolerance of corruption as did New Yorkers of Tammany Hall. So long as the trains ran on time who cares if there is a little stealing, a little shooting?

"I may steal, but I get things done," was the motto of a popular politician in Sao Paulo state.

But Brazil, along with the rest of Latin America, hit the wall in the world recession of the late 1980s. By the end of the decade, the crooked things that could be done with impunity were becoming less and less acceptable.

The economy was dead in the water, unable to grow its way out of inflation, and it was being strangled by a $104 billion debt, the Third World's highest. How could a modest politician explain his millions to the disgruntled citizenry?

With his bankroll considerably diminished, the Great Train Robber, Mr. Biggs, was forced to seek outside income. On the theory that it takes one to know one, the retired thief eventually became the star of advertisements for a Brazilian security company and gave radio tips to tourists on how to avoid being robbed by thousands of dispossessed workers.

The military men who had run the country since 1964 decided the economic potato was too hot to handle. People were becoming angry. But what to do?

Let's give the potato to the people, they said. Let's try democracy.

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The potato landed in the lap of Senator de Mello's son, Fernando Collor de Mello, the governor of a small state with no major backing from the big political parties. He was an outsider, a movie-star-handsome heir to one of Brazil's media fortunes.

In one of the more amazing election victories in Brazilian history, Mr. Collor won the presidency in 1989, vowing to jail "the maharajahs," the corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists who had made a mockery of the political system.

The country had fallen in love. At long last, the White Knight was here.

The 43-year-old Mr. Collor was an MGM ideal of what Ross Perot should have been. Not some whiny, diminutive Texan but a tall, virile black belt in karate, a deeply tanned flier of sleek airplanes, a fearless captain of fast boats, given to jogging in T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that dealt with his mission to rid the country of its sleazy corruptors.

The Hollywood persona was provided semi-official credence when President Bush described Mr. Collor as the Indiana Jones of Latin America. A crack of the whip and the Brazilian Temple of Doom would be made safe for American investors.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones fell off a cliff.

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Earlier this month the lower house of the Brazilian legislature impeached the young president, placing him in suspended animation for a trial by the Senate on charges that he stole more than $9 million.

The country was like a woman scorned. It felt it had been seduced by a young president who, it turned out, was no better than the snakes he'd sworn to drive from the Temple of Doom.

This was the upright president who, upon disovering that his young second wife had used a federal charity to line the pockets of her friends and relatives, called a press conference to remove his wedding ring.

This was a man who early in his administration had frozen all bank accounts but never told his relatives in advance so that they could withdraw their funds. They still haven't forgiven him.

In short, Mr. Collor gave every evidence of being Mr. Clean, incorruptible, a can-do kind of guy, who would deliver on Brazil's long-held pretension of becoming a world power.

With Indy at the helm, the "sleeping giant," occupying nearly half the South American continent, would awaken. Its economy, the eighth or ninth largest in the world, was poised to enter the exclusive club of the seven big developed nations.

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The Bush administration, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank couldn't take their eyes off this young whippersnapper. The Skull and Bones of economic correctness was readying the ceremonial room to initiate a new member.

Still, there were signs that perhaps the miracle in the making was not a Steven Spielberg extravaganza but "Days of Our Lives."

A few months into the administration, the finance minister in charge of creating the economic miracle quit amid allegations that she'd been having an affair with the 60-year-old justice minister.

It seems he relieved the tedium of cabinet meetings by passing love notes to the 37-year-old minister, remarking on the stylishness her mini-skirts.

There is a Brazilian saying that one should do everything for family, nothing for strangers and reserve the law for one's enemies.

But for President Collor the dictum tragically imploded into a Freudian nightmare of sibling spite and intrigue.

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First, there was the scandal involving his wife's charity work for her friends. Then, his younger brother Pedro, who had assumed control of the family's media properties, insisted on doing the unforgiveable. He ran front-page stories about his sister-in-law's alleged corruption while running the $1 billion charity.

To answer this breach in family solidarity, Paulo Cesar Farias, the president's campaign manager, threatened to start another newspaper, one that would rival the family daily in Alagoas state.

Not to be outdone, Pedro told Brazil's major news weekly in May that his goody-goody president-brother had forced him to use cocaine when they were younger and that the country's savior was now taking kickbacks from government contractors.

Ninety percent of the money went into the chief executive's pocket, he said, and 10 percent to the campaign manager, Mr. Farias.

Congress formed a commission to investigate the charges, while Pedro took off for Miami to await events.

Leaks quickly turned into herorrhages; the president's altruistic reforms were turning out to be shady deals.

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Take, for example, the presidential digs. A la Gov. Jerry Brown, he had spurned the official residence in Brasilia, apparently to save the taxpayers money.

Instead, Mr. Collor said he preferred the family manse in the capital. But the press reported he spent $2.5 million fixing up the grounds. There was the pond for the imported Japanese carp, the waterfall. The ever helpful Mr. Farias paid the household bills.

And where did the money come from?

Mr. Farias said the money was leftover campaign funds that came from "Operation Uruguay," a euphemism for a 1989 loan from an Uruguayan financier. It was legit, he said.

But as the investigators delved into the campaign's computer records they discoverd a startling fact. The computer program used for the financial records wasn't available until after 1989. The "loan" records had been written after the election. Something smelled fishy, and it wasn't just carp.

Given the help of his family, Mr. Collor was badly in need of friends, even strangers. By August, Congress was getting ready to vote a bill of impeachment.

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If history was any guide, the Brazilian military would ask for the return of their hot potato, rightously contending that government was too important to be left to the people.

But by the end of the month the president had decreed a 96 percent pay increase for the boys in Ray Bans. Prominent military men lined up like Boy Scouts to vow allegiance to the constitution. There would be no coup d'etat.

This left the young president trying to salvage enough votes in the lower house to prevent a two-thirds vote for impeachment.

Press reports alleged he was trying to buy votes through mysterious loans to congressmen from a government bank. Millions of dollars had flowed out of the bank in recent weeks.

Even so, as a reformist outsider, he had few allies in the lower house. With the alienation of his popular mandate, the maharajahs he sought to destroy would eat him alive.

Mr. Collor was doomed, at least on the first round. He now awaits his trial in the Senate, where he promises to explain all.

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His impeachment was greeted with dancing in the streets. Former presidents of Latin countries made solemn speeches about how the Hemisphere had turned the corner on corruption. At long last the system works, they said.

Indeed, Mr. Collor's impeachment is a remarkable event. Having ridden the wave of revulsion against corruption into the presidential suite, he is living proof that it was powerful enough to drown him as well.

Yet Mr. Collor's presidency, despite its "Family Feud" qualities, helped restore Brazil's tattered economy, shedding the state of bloated bureaucracies and inefficient industries.

Many of those dancing in the streets over his demise were those who had the most to fear.

Why the man assigned to clean up the corrupt department of motor vehicles turned up murdered the other day.

After all, this is Brazil.

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John McClintock was The Sun's Latin American correspondent, based in Mexico City, from 1987 until June.


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