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Colombians capture Brazil’s top drug lord

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BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombian troops captured Brazil's most powerful drug lord Saturday, the army said, ending a drawn-out manhunt for an escaped convict accused of arming leftist rebels in exchange for cocaine.

Luis Fernando da Costa, known by his Brazilian nickname of Fernandinho Beira-Mar (Freddy Seashore), surrendered to the army Saturday after a 50-minute standoff deep in Colombia's jungle province of Vichada, near the southeastern border with Venezuela and Brazil.

Da Costa — said to be wounded and in very poor health — was accompanied by another Brazilian, who was also captured.

"The Rapid Deployment Force captured two individuals of Brazilian nationality . . . of whom one has all of the physical characteristics of the narcotrafficker Luis Fernando da Costa, better known as Fernandinho," army chief Jorge Enrique Mora said in a statement.

Da Costa, a former kingpin of Rio de Janeiro's shantytown drug trade, escaped from a Brazilian prison in 1996. Authorities suspect he has run his business from Colombia for up to a year.

President Andres Pastrana, in Quebec for the Summit of the Americas, said Colombia was studying the possibility of extraditing da Costa to Brazil, where he has been sentenced to multiple 30-year terms for drug trafficking and murder.

"We know that he has sentences, and very large ones, ordered by Brazilian judges, and we are studying his legal standing within Colombia," Pastrana said after a meeting with Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The armed forces escalated their search efforts for the Brazilian two days ago after forcing down and destroying a small propeller aircraft believed to be carrying the drug lord and four other passengers, all of whom fled. The army Friday captured one of the escapees, who said da Costa had been on board and had fled into the jungle on foot.

Mora ordered more than 300 troops to fan out across the area Friday while air force planes and helicopters scanned it from the sky. The search operation was Colombia's biggest yet for the Brazilian trafficker. Da Costa's capture could be crucial for the army, which has long been trying to prove that the country's largest rebel force, the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is deeply involved in the drug trade.

It accuses da Costa of selling arms, ammunition and explosives to the FARC in return for cocaine and believes he could be one of the most important links that the rebels have to the international drug trade.

In February, Colombian troops captured eight Brazilians, including da Costa's girlfriend. Local media said she had a notebook detailing the trade of 560 rifles, 2,252 light arms, explosives and ammunition.

FARC commander Ivan Rios recently told the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo that the rebels might have collected "taxes" from the Brazilian's drug business, but he denied that they had sold him cocaine for arms. The FARC has long admitted to forcing industries and drug barons to contribute funds for their 37-year-old war to set up a communist state.

The army said da Costa would be immediately transferred to a military base in Villavicencio.