The dirt is piling up around Brazil's macho Mr Clean: President Collor is young, dashing and in deep trouble. Phil Davison reports

He has been dubbed Captain Marvel, South America's Indiana Jones and 'one of the world's most sexy men'. With Latin looks, athletic skills and a macho, Top Gun image as fighter pilot-for-pleasure, Fernando Collor de Mello took Brazil by storm in its 1990 presidential election.

Three years ago this son of wealthy landowners pledged to fight corruption among the 'maharajas' of the nation's overweight bureaucracy, and to clothe the millions of 'shirtless and shoeless'. He swept to power as Brazil's long-awaited 'Mr Clean'. He was the youngest president in the South American nation's history. Now, halfway through his five-year term, he is starring in a real-life soap opera that has the nation enthralled, and appears likely to culminate in his early demise.

Accused of pocketing millions of dollars in kickbacks since taking office, Mr Collor, 43, faces impeachment and criminal charges that could, if he continues to refuse to step down, see him led from the Presidential Palace in handcuffs. A poll last week showed 75 per cent of Brazilians in favour of impeachment, a concept so alien in Brazil that street protest placards use the English word: 'Impeachment ja]' (Impeachment now]). Congress is expected to vote by the end of this month on whether to begin the impeachment process.

Whether it rubbed off on him, Mr Collor could hardly have been a stranger to corruption during his formative years. He was 14 when his father, Senator Arnon de Mello, took exception to remarks by a colleague on the Senate floor. He pulled his pistol and a colleague fell dead. Next, he pulled his weight and the killing was ruled to have been accidental. He had, he pointed out, been aiming at a different senator.

Part of a well-off provincial clan from the north-eastern sugar-belt state of Alagoas, the family's close ties with military leaders allowed Mr Collor to clamber quickly up the political ladder. He became mayor of Maceio, the provincial capital, in 1979, was elected to Congress and, in 1986, became state governor. Although a dark horse, those closest to him were not surprised when he won the presidency. Support from the influential O Globo media network, with which his family had ties, helped to tip the scales.

His Mr Clean image took its first dent a year ago when his wife Rosane was forced to step down as head of the Brazilian Assistance Legion, a big state charity. She had, it was alleged, been siphoning off charity funds to lavish expensive gifts and parties on friends and relatives. The real-life soap opera had by then already begun when, in August, the presidential couple had a public falling out and Mr Collor stopped wearing his wedding ring. An equally public reconciliation followed after Rosane burst into tears during a mass.

And last September, Mr Collor's brother-in-law, Joao Malta Brandao, was said to have shot at a local mayor during a bar-room brawl. He turned himself in, but all charges were mysteriously dropped. Three months ago, however, the 'soap' surpassed fiction with a twist that could lead to the president's downfall. His brother, Pedro, accused the president of being a heavy user of marijuana and cocaine and of attempting to get his wife into bed when their marriage was having hiccups.

The allegations made the headlines, but it was Pedro's less-publicised claims - that his brother had his hand in the nation's till - that eventually led to the impeachment crisis.

In fact, 38-year-old Pedro later retracted, saying he had no proof of any direct corruption by his brother. But the die was cast. A congressional panel investigated the allegations announced its findings last month: the president, it said, 'on a permanent basis and during more than two years in office, received improper financial benefit'.

To wit, the panel charged, Mr Collor and his family had received millions of dollars from a slush fund, by using contracts and payments to non-existent companies, run by his close friend and former campaign treasurer Paulo Cesar Farias.

Mr Collor denies any wrongdoing. But if he does not yet stand naked, his support is little wider than the 'dental floss' bikinis favoured on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.

(Photograph omitted)

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