Marcelo “Piloto” Pinheiro was considered one of the Brazilian government’s most sought-after drug traffickers until 2017. He is believed to have been the second-in-command of the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV).
As the direct heir to the operations led by the CV’s founder, Fernandinho Beira-Mar, Pinheiro became one of the top drug-trafficking leaders along the land border between Paraguay (Pedro Juan Caballero) and Brazil (Punta Porá). Taking advantage of border facilities and weaknesses within the Paraguayan state, Piloto’s crimes ranged from large-scale theft to murder, the purchase and sale of illegal weapons, falsification of documents and drug trafficking. He was apprehended on December 13, 2017, in Itapuá, Paraguay, by a joint operation between Paraguayan and Brazilian special forces.
He was extradited to Brazil on November 19, 2018, following the homicide of Lidia Meza Burgos.
Born in 1975, in the favela of Urubu, Pilares, Río de Janeiro, Marcelo Pinheiro He started out as a common thief in the 1990s, participating in robberies called "bondes," meaning “trams,” were conducted in the Norte do Rio region, where he was in charge of getaway vehicles. This was how he earned his nickname, “Piloto.”
SEE ALSO: Red Command
Local press reports claim that he got his start in small scale drug-trafficking in the mid-90s. He was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to 26 years in prison. On August 24, 2007, he obtained the right to serve his sentence under a semi-open prison regime. He was sent to a low-security prison: the Edgard Costa Criminal Institute, in the city of Niterói, Río de Janeiro, from which he escaped and returned to illicit activities in Río de Janeiro.
Already a fugitive, he entered into large-scale drug trafficking within the communities of Manguinhos and Mandela I, II and III. His main focus was in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where the Red Command had been exercising control for a decade.
In July 2012, he orchestrated the rescue of drug trafficker Diogo de Souza Feitoza, alias DG, who was later killed. This same year, after the occupation of the Manguinhos favela by security forces, Marcelo fled to Paraguay. He then started to use a false identity and to change his address every six months to stay one step ahead of Paraguayan and Brazilian police.
For Piloto, Paraguay represented a land of opportunities, corruption and impunity. One month before his extradition, he told the country’s press that in 2015m he paid an official from Alto Paraná $200,000 for his freedom as well as $10,000 for a fake ID, although “this documentation was not very good, because I don’t speak Spanish or Guarani well,” he told the media outlet Extra.
In Paraguay, he dedicated himself to smugging arms and drugs, like marijuana and cocaine, towards Brazilian cities controlled by the Red Command. His primary operations base was Ciudad del Este as well as Pedro Juan Caballero, a city bordering Brazil.
Despite Piloto being identified as a leader of the CV, an event that took place in Ciudad del Este on April 24, 2017, generated confusion among authorities. Piloto is believed to have provided the logistical support for a large-scale assault on the private security agency Prosegur, an event carried out by rival group, the First Capital Command (Primer Comando Capital - PCC). Subsequently, Paraguayan prosecutors assumed that Pinheiro, rather than being a Red Command leader in Paraguay, was really more of a contractor for any group requiring his services.
SEE ALSO: PCC News and Profile
On December 13, 2017, Piloto was arrested in the Paraguayan city of Encarnación during a joint operation conducted by Brazilian and Paraguayan police. Since his arrest and until his extradition, Brazilian and Paraguayan forces thwarted at least six attempts to free the drug trafficker.
Paraguayan police investigations concluded that Piloto had devised a plan to remain in prison in Paraguay, as it would be easier for him to stage a prison break there. He therefore began claiming responsibility for crimes committed in the country, like the 2013 murder of one of his transporters, Miguel Aranda, in Alto Paraná. His goal was to avoid extradition to Brazil.
However, on October 26, 2018, Paraguayan judge Alicia Pedrozo authorized Piloto’s extradition to Brazil. Once he learned of the court’s decision, the Brazilian trafficker murdered a young woman named Lidia Meza Burgos, a victim of a sex trafficking ring who was a sex worker in the maximum-security prison. Pinheiro bludgeoned her and stabbed her 16 times.
As soon as the murder was reported, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez ordered Pinheiro’s extradition for November 19, 2018.
In Brazil, Piloto has been linked to large scale robbery and micro-trafficking. After his escape from federal prison in Brazil in 2007, his underworld skills transitioned into arms and drug trafficking, train assaults, extortion and attacks on public facilities and he went on to become one of the heads of the Red Command, head of the criminal association.
Pinheiro continued with his criminal activities after fleeing to Paraguay in 2012. He focused on the trafficking of drugs and weapons, setting himself up as a facilitator for other criminal groups like the PCC.
Piloto provided the weaponry for the aforementioned attack on Prosegur conducted by the PCC. The explosives and high caliber weapons arrived in Pedro Juan Caballero on a small plane, where Piloto helped load the vehicles that transported to Ciudad del Este for the attack. In Paraguay he worked as a criminal “freelancer,” offering services to a range of criminal groups.
In Brazil, Piloto moved within the Norte do Río region in Río de Janeiro, in the communities of Manguinhos and Mandela I, II and III. In Paraguay, he moved between the cities of Pedro Juan Caballero (on the border with Brazil), Ciudad del Este (Triple Frontier) and Encarnación (bordering Argentina). Therefore, he moved through practically all of the eastern part of the country.
Allies and Enemies
As one of the leaders of the CV, Pinheiro’s main rival during his years in Brazil (until 2012) was the First Capital Command (Primer Comando Capital - PCC). Once in Paraguay, there is evidence he collaborated with both groups. He loaned services to whoever asked, and there were no conflicts with other factions or disputes with other rival gangs or clans.
His influence also extended into an enormous corruption network within the Paraguayan National Police, as he relied on the complicity of agency officials. During a press conference on November 6, 2018, he stated: “I point directly to police commissioner Abel Cañete, from Ciudad del Este, who I paid every month for protection […] Police personnel were responsible for warning me each time authorities from the neighboring country crossed the border.”
Pinheiro has been arrested and is being tried in Brazil. He is now being held at the Catanduvas prison, in the state of Paraná. He is accused of drug trafficking, theft, armed robbery, homicide and criminal associations. In June 2019, Federal Criminal Court in Río de Janeiro agreed to try him for the murder of Lidia Meza Burgos. For this crime alone, prosecutors demanded a sentence of 30 years in prison.