Descrição de chapéu What the dictatorship in Brazil was

The Dictatorship Ushered in an Era Organized, Violent Repression that Went Unpunished

The Truth Commission counted 434 dead and missing persons and thousands of torture allegations; Amnesty ruled out blaming culprits

Bruno Boghosian

Two days after the 1964 coup, the government arrested ex-sergeant Gregório Bezerra in Recife. A leader of the PCB, he was tied by the neck and pulled through the city streets, while an official beckoned people to the road.

The scenes, displayed on local TV, symbolized the inauguration of a regime that adopted violent repression as a method. Researchers point to Bezerra as the first torture victim of the period.

The cases recorded in the early months of the dictatorship have been referred to by members of the military government as the "heat of the hour."

The military regime, however, adopted the practice as a tool for interrogating and fighting opponents, especially people considered subversive.

Beginning in 1968, the violent repression established a structure dedicated to torture, deaths, and disappearance that lasted until the second half of the 1970s.

The repression numbers are not very precise because the dictatorship never recognized these episodes. Military justice auditors received 6,016 reports of torture.

Estimates made by the third National Human Rights Program, approved by the government Dilma Rousseff (PT), point to 20 thousand cases.

Prisoners reported being hung from macaw sticks and submitted to electric shocks, strangulation, attempted drownings, paddling blows, punches, kicks, and other assaults. In some cases, the torture session led to death.

In 2014, a National Truth Commission (CNV) listed 191 deaths and disappearances of 210 people. Officials located the bodies of another 33 missing people totaling 434 people.

Dictatorships that dominated neighboring countries surpassed Brazilian data. In Chile (1973-1989), the government recorded more than 3,000 deaths. In Argentina (1976-1983), there were over 30 thousand victims.

"This is sometimes taken as proof that the Brazilian dictatorship was less ferocious or absolute. It is not true. The reason for this number is the government's absolute control over the repressive process," said lawyer Pedro Dallari, who coordinated the CNV in 2013 and 2014.

When the first cases of torture were registered, still in 1964, the leaders of the regime adopted a tolerant attitude.

That year, President Castelo Branco (1964-1967) ordered the investigation. The head of the military cabinet, Ernesto Geisel, noted that the violent repression occurred in small numbers and had stopped. Nobody suffered punishment.

"The more lenient the command was, the more this practice was consolidated," said historian and political scientist Heloisa Starling. "It wasn't crazy; it was a method."

The violent acts were attributed to "hardline" officers who worked deep in the dictatorship, especially in the State Departments of Social and Political Order (Dops) of state police.

The regime created an apparatus to carry out repression. The National Information Service (SNI), established in 1964 for coordinated intelligence activities, executed espionage, and monitored subversive activities. The prisons and torture stayed with the Army Information Center (CIE) of 1967.

To increase violence, AI-5, in the following year, suspended the guarantee of habeas corpus for suspects of political crimes against national security. It facilitated the work of torturers, who managed to keep their enemies in custody.

Colonel João Batista Figueiredo, who would be the last president of the dictatorship (1979-1985), summarized the following act: "The errors of the revolution have accumulated and, now, the only thing left is for the government "to leave from the violence."

The government also inaugurated in 1969, a nucleus to coordinate security actions. Created in São Paulo, an Oban (Operation Bandeirante) received financial support from São Paulo entrepreneurs.

General Emílio Médici (1969-1974) expanded the apparatus. In 1970, the government founded Information Operations Detachments (DOIs) and Center for Internal Defense Operations (Codi).

The binomial DOI-Codi symbolized repressive combat and enhanced torture. There were prison cells that were subjected to low temperatures or loud music. The detainees were immobilized on the "dragon" chairs for an electric shock application.

Militant of Popular Action (AP), lawyer Rita Sipahi was imprisoned in 1971. At the DOI-paulista code, officials attacked her, stripped her naked, and she received shocks in the vagina. The interrogators wanted her to reveal the location of the members of the leftist movements.

Hanging on the macaw stick, she said the address after a few days. "I was already getting purple fingers. I dragged myself because I couldn't speak. But the people had already left, and that gave me strength."

The use of torture and violence was one of the pillars of the regime after 1968. Repression grew as the government saw guerrilla outbreaks spread across the countryside and cities, with terrorist acts by radicals.

The dictators justified the repression because they saw it as a war on terrorism.

Left-wing violence claimed the fewest victims, according to retired colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, head of the São Paulo DOI in the 1970s, and accused of torture and murder.

He listed 119 victims of these groups, including police and military personnel killed in the conflict, civilians shot in shootings, and even cases in which the participation of opponents of the regime was not proven.

"Even if we accept that there was an unconventional war, there are at least three violating procedures: torturing prisoners, disappearing with guerrilla bodies, and unleashing terror on the population," Starling said.

The repression machine specialized in annihilating guerrilla and terrorist actions. In 1969, he killed Carlos Marighella, of the National Liberation Action, a group that participated in the kidnapping of the American ambassador Charles Elbrick.

The regime also attacked emblematic people, such as the ex-captain Carlos Lamarca. After defecting from the Army, he became the protagonist of the armed struggle. He was shot in 1971 while establishing a base in Bahia.

The dictatorship wiped out most of the armed groups. In 1972, the Army discovered a guerrilla focus of the PC do B in the Araguaia River region.

In two operations, the military defeated the combatants two years later. Sixty-three people were killed or went missing, including guerrillas and peasants in the region.

The repression continued with Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979). A month before assuming the presidency, he invited General Dale Coutinho to the Ministry of the Army. In a conversation revealed decades later by journalist Elio Gaspari, the two discussed the fight against political subversion.

"The business has improved a lot. Now, it improved, here between us, that's when we started killing," said the future minister. Geisel agrees: "Look, Coutinho, this killing thing is barbaric, but I think we have to do it."

The regime deepened the fight against leftist organizations to the point of filling the DOI São Paulo prison. In October 1975, journalist Vladimir Herzog, a member of the PCB, was taken there. Hooded, beaten, and subjected to electric shocks, he died the next day.

The military said Herzog hung himself with the prisoners' "girdle strap," even though DOI overalls had no girdle.

O jornalista Vladimir Herzog em frente à máquina de escrever
Vladimir Herzog - Acervo Instituto Vladimir Herzog/Divulgação

According to accusations made years later, this version of the story covered the murder during torture, with the participation of a coroner who defrauded his death certificate.

The repercussions of Herzog's death increased the demand for openness. The US government's position, the church's campaign, and opposition from entities such as the OAB put pressure on the dictatorship.

The gradual opening was conducted under the military command, with rules established by the 1979 Amnesty Law. Leftist militants had their crimes forgiven, but the legislation also protected agents from repression.

"It is a legacy of impunity present in our institutions today," said Lucas Paolo, from the Vladimir Herzog Institute.