Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Brazilian police HQ red-faced following theft of cash haul

AP , RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

Brazilian police said on Tuesday that nearly US$1 million was stolen from police headquarters, days after agents seized the cash and more than a tonne of cocaine in Rio de Janeiro's biggest drug bust.

Authorities suspended 59 agents and launched an investigation to recover the cash, which was reported missing on Monday from the federal police office in Rio.

"This was really embarrassing -- right inside the corporation itself," said Fagner Santos of the federal police office in the capital city of Brasilia.

The cash -- in US dollars, euros and Brazilian reals -- was seized by police after a raid on a meat warehouse last Thursday, when agents found 1.5 tonnes of cocaine packaged and hidden inside frozen meat bound for Portugal.

Portuguese businessmen Antonio de Palhinos Jorge Pereira and Antonio dos Santos Damaso were arrested on suspicion of financing the drug shipments, and police seized the cash in their offices.

Police set off fireworks to celebrate, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime last Friday congratulated Brazil for the drug seizure and said "this successful operation confirms the professionalism of the federal police."

Over the weekend, thieves stole the money by breaking into police headquarters in downtown Rio and taking the keys to the safe room, police said.

Police admitted it was a mistake not to have deposited the money immediately in a bank and said the delay was due to a dispute between courts in different states that took part in the drug investigation, which lasted more than two years.

Police also are investigating why the keys to the safe room were left in an open locker.

The money might not be hard to trace, police said, because much of it was in 500-euro bills, which aren't common in Brazil. But the damage may go deeper.

"The damage wasn't to the investigation of drug trafficking, but the good name of the federal police was tarnished," Ronaldo Magalhaes, head of the Drug Repression Division's intelligence unit, said in the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.

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