By - John Barham

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Only one certifiable billionaire emerges from the web of secret bank accounts, underground business dealings, and tax dodging that characterize most business in Latin America. He is Brazil's Sebastiao Ferraz de Camargo Penteado, 78, whose fortune of at least $1.2 billion was built on contracts for grandiose construction projects handed out by successive governments. As much as anyone, Camargo made Brazil what it is today, literally. He helped build the $15- billion Itaipu, the world's largest hydroelectric dam, and was the prime contractor for 488 miles of the Trans-Amazon Highway, and the eight-mile bridge across Guanabara Bay that connects Niteroi to Rio de Janeiro. In addition, he constructed railways, harbors, and airports. Now that Brazil's $110-billion foreign debt has scuttled government spending on pharaonic projects, Camargo may have to rely more on his other businesses. He is virtually the sole owner of a score of enterprises, including aluminum, mining, cement, textile, and banking companies, as well as four ranches. Camargo, who acquired the nickname ''China'' because of his inscrutable manner and vaguely Oriental features, built all this out of a subcontract for a piece of a road nearly 60 years ago. Wealthy Latins are known more for their profligate revelry and luxurious exile than for entrepreneurial feats on the scale of Camargo's. For the most part, the economies of Latin America discourage serious capitalism. Governments that intervene massively and erratically in their economies put off investors. Shaky currencies send wealth scurrying abroad, where it earns interest but builds nothing. These economic conditions, coupled with obsessive secrecy to hide wealth from tax collectors and kidnappers, have created fortunes that exist more in legend than in fact. In the 1930s Simon Patino, the tin baron of Bolivia, was reputed to be a billionaire, but his mines were expropriated by the Bolivian government in 1952 and his many descendants, some multimillionaires, live scattered around Europe. Since governments dominate the economies of Latin America, power and influence can be more important to a businessman than sheer wealth or ability. Says one Brazilian multimillionaire: ''Net worth means nothing, but power translates into fascinating things -- into new franchises, into keeping the competition out.'' If power is the true Latin measure of wealth, then Roberto Marinho, 82, is the richest man in Brazil, even though he is worth only $850 million or so. He owns the world's largest private TV network outside the U.S., TV Globo, which regularly hypnotizes 50% of Brazil's viewers and on occasion has enjoyed ratings as high as 90%. Marinho's power is reinforced by Rio de Janeiro's O Globo, a tough-minded, well-read newspaper that Marinho took over as a teenager when his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Compared with Marinho, whose name regularly pops up in his own newscasts, billionaire Sebastiao Camargo is barely known to Brazilians. But he knows the people he needs to know. He has been chummy with all Brazil's recent Presidents. Like other big construction men, Camargo is part of an informal cartel that survives on the good will of politicians. Camargo was born to a wealthy farm family in the state of Sao Paulo, but the money disappeared after his father died in 1926. One of ten orphans, Camargo quit school to become a laborer and quickly won promotion to overseer and then to truck driver. Still in his teens, he became a subcontractor on road works and, starting with two burros for equipment, soon built a profitable business. When a revolutionary government in the state of Sao Paulo began paying its suppliers in almost worthless bonds, he nearly went under. In 1938 he took a partner to form Construcoes e Comercio Camargo Correa SA, and won his first big government contract: the building of an eight-mile section of highway in the interior of Sao Paulo state. Because of fears of kidnappers, Camargo runs his businesses from an unmarked building in Sao Paulo and lives in a well-guarded house in the exclusive Jardim Europa quarter of Brazil's business capital. He bounds around Brazil in his jet, visiting offices and ranches, terrifying subordinates with his microscopic knowledge of the businesses. Antonio Delfim Netto, a former planning minister and a friend of 24 years, describes Camargo as a perpetual student, always seeking new information, even though he has little formal education. Five years ago, for example, he hired a geologist to tutor him on nonferrous metals. Camargo owns one-third of Alcoa Aluminio SA, the Brazilian subsidiary of the U.S. company. Big-game hunting is his only diversion. In his last expedition, he shot polar bears in Alaska. Camargo has three daughters and has given their husbands seats on the boards of some of his companies. But he has given no sign of turning power over to them or anyone else.