A Defiant Interview in a Jail Cell, Soon to Turn Into a Murder Scene
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Before being allowed inside the Paraguay jail cell of a notorious drug kingpin, I braced for an intrusive pat down. But the skinny guard standing just outside the bars barely touched me as he briskly ran his hands down my arms and back.
I was at the prison to interview Marcelo Pinheiro Veiga, who had resorted to an audacious gambit to resist being extradited to his native Brazil: He had confessed to a litany of crimes committed in Paraguay.
After the perfunctory search, I entered the small cell and sat about a foot away from Mr. Veiga, close enough to notice his breath smelled fresh.
“Paraguay is the land of impunity,” Mr. Veiga told me after describing a long criminal career that led him to become one of the major smugglers of arms and drugs from Paraguay to Brazil.
Hours later, it was hard not to interpret those words as a blood bath foretold.
Soon after I left Mr. Veiga’s jail cell on Nov. 17, Lidia Meza Burgos, 18, was led inside, according to Paraguayan police officials. With the plain dining knife he used to eat, Mr. Veiga stabbed her 17 times in the neck, torso and back, killing her.
Paraguayan officials believe the slaying was a macabre escalation of the trafficker’s bid to remain in their custody, and avoid the harsher detention conditions he would face in Brazil.
As a former crime reporter and war correspondent, I have interviewed plenty of violent men. But this episode shook me like nothing else before.
Since that day, I’ve spent many hours replaying snippets of my conversation with Mr. Veiga for any sign of what was to come.
I’ve thought incessantly about Ms. Meza, and the dreadful decision she must have faced about whether to set foot inside the domain of a man with so many monstrous crimes to his name.
I also have found myself reflecting on the narcotics industry, a scourge that has cast a shadow over my own life since infancy.
I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1981, the decade Pablo Escobar and other drug lords began writing a destructive chapter of the nation’s history.
As a child, I was riveted when my parents took the family to the zoo Mr. Escobar built at Hacienda Nápoles, his large estate outside Medellín, where hippopotamuses, giraffes, tigers and elephants helped soften the image of a man who killed scores of people and poisoned the country’s politics in ways that endure to this day.
As an adult, I dreaded presenting my passport at airports abroad. For so long, it seemed to carry a cocaine scarlet letter that subjected me and many of my compatriots to dreary inspection rooms, where people are compelled to demonstrate they don’t embody the worst stereotypes of their nations.
Of the many chains in the drug trade, the top traffickers have always been the most enigmatic to me. Many, most notably Mr. Escobar, have been lionized in movies and television series in recent years.
But it is relatively rare to get to question the contemporary chieftains of the trade, men who call the shots even from behind bars. Men like Mr. Veiga.
He seemed like an ideal source for an article I was writing on how the violence of Brazil’s drug trade has overwhelmed Paraguay, and I was pleased when his lawyer arranged this meeting.
Mr. Veiga looked well-rested when he greeted me wearing the yellow soccer jersey that Brazil’s team has turned into a display of patriotism. His cell was outfitted with a television, a refrigerator and a microwave.
We began speaking about Rio de Janeiro, where Mr. Veiga was raised, and which has been my home since 2017. He was brought up by parents he described as lower-middle class in a favela, one of the constellations of poor districts built on the city’s hills.
Mr. Veiga, 43, said he got his start in crime in the mid-1990s, when a group of neighbors invited him to tag along to steal cars.
“I wanted adventure,” he said, making it clear that his family, while of modest means, had never wanted for anything.
The adventure was short-lived. Mr. Veiga was locked up in 1997, and sentenced to 26 years in prison after being convicted of armed robbery and other crimes. His first days behind bars were perhaps the most formative of his career, he told me.
Serving time alongside convicted murderers, he quickly concluded that surviving in prison required forging strategic alliances.
“I was a mere car thief,” he said. “I had to assume a posture that would show I was not weak.”
That meant forging bonds with some of the founders of Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, the drug trafficking organization that controls much of the market in Rio de Janeiro.
A decade into his sentence, Mr. Veiga became eligible for brief outings from jail. He fled at the first chance in 2007.
The relationships he made in prison paved the way for him to take on a series of leadership roles in Red Command strongholds. In 2012, as the authorities were making headway in an ambitious plan to restore state control in areas of Rio de Janeiro long run by drug traffickers, Mr. Veiga felt exposed and decided it was time for a big move.
“I came to Paraguay,” he said, his “only option.”
He initially set up shop in Ciudad del Este, a bustling border town that is one of the world’s contraband meccas.
For much of his time here, Paraguay was a criminal’s wonderland, Mr. Veiga said. Kickbacks to top police officials were so widespread, the going rate for commanders of varying ranks were essentially institutionalized.
Mr. Veiga said he paid a senior police official $100,000 as a down payment to establish trust. The same officer got $5,000 per month; his deputies received $2,000.
In exchange, Mr. Veiga was tipped off every time the authorities were close to nabbing him, allowing him to always stay a step ahead as he arranged shipments of cocaine and weapons across the border.
But after the United States Drug Enforcement Administration shared his whereabouts with senior officials in Paraguay, he was arrested in December 2017.
Mr. Veiga described his exploits with a striking sense of pride. I asked him if he felt any responsibility for the epidemic of violence tormenting Brazil, where in 2017 a record 63,000 people were killed.
“I don’t want to see death,” he told me. “I take no satisfaction from death. But unfortunately in this war, those things happen.”
Mr. Veiga told me his notoriety is overstated, calling himself a mere mid-ranking criminal operating in a rotten system with far worse offenders.
“The real criminal organizations are the politicians,” he said. “The politicians are the ones who are stealing everything. How many people are they killing indirectly?”
I asked him what he thought of Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has vowed to make it easier for the police to kill suspected criminals, saying that a “good criminal is a dead criminal.”
Barring “a truce” between traffickers and the state, and reform of a prison system that “creates monsters,” he said, things will only get worse.
“They are going to kill a lot of people and nothing will change,” Mr. Veiga said.
As the interview wound up, I saw no hint of what authorities said happened next.
Soon after I left the heavily guarded jail, Ms. Meza was dropped off at the entrance.
Mr. Veiga had first contacted her weeks earlier by accessing a Paraguayan website that featured ads for prostitutes, according to Hugo Volpe, one of the prosecutors investigating the killing.
Investigators established that fact by reviewing messages on a cellphone Mr. Veiga had been using inside his cell, which also made clear Mr. Veiga was still working in jail.
“He was still trafficking arms and drugs on WhatsApp,” Mr. Volpe said, referring to the encrypted messaging system. “He was in constant contact with his people.”
To lure Ms. Meza to see him behind bars, Mr. Veiga offered to pay her about $200, the prosecutor said.
Cesar Caballero, a lawyer representing the Meza family, said the teenager had been recruited by a prostitution ring months earlier while she was working as a merchant in a busy market downtown in Asunción.
Mr. Volpe said the deadly attack was clearly motivated by a desire to delay his extradition to Brazil, where the prison system is harder to game.
But within hours of the killing, Mr. Veiga was flown home to face the remainder of his 26-year sentence, and Paraguayan prosecutors are building a case they hope will allow their Brazilian counterparts to convict him of murder in Ms. Meza’s slaying.
“This won’t bring back Lidia’s life, or ease the pain of the family,” Mr. Volpe said. “But the sense of impunity if we weren’t acting would be worse.”