"For my friends, everything; for the indifferent, nothing; for my enemies, the law."

In President Fernando Collor de Mello's home state of Alagoas, this Brazilian aphorism is the golden rule. The credo appears to be the source of Mr. Collor's power and the cause of his undoing.

Collor's rise to the top is based on his links to Alagoas's top families. Numbering no more than 25, they dominate a sugar-cane plantation economy that has changed little in five centuries. The tiny, Atlantic-coast state is Brazil's poorest.

His father, the late Arnon de Mello, was governor from 1951 to 1956. The media empire he founded still controls 80 percent of Alagoas's radio, television, and newspaper outlets, which provide little news about the scandal. Collor also served as governor from 1987 to 1990.

The family of Collor's wife, Rosane Malta, controls the town of Canapi in the drought-ridden interior like a feudal fief.

Neither family flinches from violence. As a federal senator, Arnon shot at an opponent during a debate. He missed, but killed another congressman. He was never charged.

Ms. Malta's brother murdered a political rival when he was 15 but got off because of his youth. Now 20, he is awaiting trial for attempting to murder the mayor of Canapi last fall.

"Before his father put him forward, Collor was just the playboy son in a family with strong links to the [1964-1985] military regime," says Djalma Falcao, a former mayor of the state capital, Maceio.

Collor's family is also the cause of his woes. His wife's political meddling and mismanagement of a government charity cost him political support and helped force the firing of the entire Alagoas-dominated Cabinet last January.

Collor's brother Pedro is responsible for Collor's current predicament. His denunciations in May of influence-peddling by Maceio-businessman Paulo Cesar Farias resulted in the congressional investigation that now threatens the president with impeachment.

Newspapers and political analysts in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo praised Pedro as a hero. Mr. Falcao disagrees.

"When Collor was elected he didn't give his brother the same access he gave Farias," he says. "I believe [Pedro] denounced his brother because he didn't get his cut. Everybody knows Pedro introduced Farias to Collor and his wife is Farias's cousin."

But if friends get everything and enemies only use the law to hurt each other, what about the "indifferent?"

The satellite dishes and manicured grounds of Mr. Farias's brand-new city-block-sized compound sit cheek by jowl with Brazilian shantytowns. A police investigation found that the first lady's misappropriation of charity funds reduced the number of emergency food packets provided to Alagoas's poor.

The growing street protests around the president may be an attempt to get something for the indifferent.

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