Brazilian Commission Report Details Murder and Torture by US-backed Dictatorship

Brazil Truth Commission Report Identifies 375 Perpetrators of Torture and Other Atrocities

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff cries during a speech at the launching ceremony of the National Truth Commission Report, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Dec. 10, 2014.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cries during a speech at the launching ceremony of the National Truth Commission Report, at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Dec. 10, 2014. Eraldo Peres.

Contained within Brazil’s National Truth Commission report, a document released by the U.S. government has been described as “one of the most detailed reports of torture ever declassified by the US government.” (Image: Screenshot)

Almost thirty years after the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Comissao Nacional da Verdade [National Truth Commission] on Wednesday released its long awaited report on human rights violations by the security forces between 1964 and 1985. The report, which took two-and-a-half years to complete and totals over 1000 pages, represents the first formal attempt by Brazil as a nation to record its repressive past and provide a detailed accounting of the system of repression, the victims of human rights violations, as well as the identities of those who committed those crimes.

In contrast to the U.S. Senate report on torture released Tuesday in Washington which redacted even the pseudonyms of CIA personnel who engaged in torture, the Brazilian report identified over 375 perpetrators of atrocities by name.

The report contains detailed chapters on the structure and methods of the repression during the military era, including targeted violence against women and children. The commission identified over 400 individuals killed by the military, many of them “disappeared” as the military sought to hide its abuses. During its investigation, the Commission located and identified the remains of 33 of the disappeared; some 200 other victims remain missing.

The report also sheds significant light on Brazil’s role in the cross-border regional repression known as Operation Condor. In a chapter titled “International Connections: From Repressive Alliances in the Southern Cone to Operation Condor,” the Commission report details Brazil’s military ties to the coup in Chile, and support for the Pinochet regime, as well as identifies Argentine citizens captured and killed in Brazil as part of a Condor collaboration between the Southern Cone military regimes.

This report opens a Pandora’s box of historical and legal accountability for Brazilians. For now it provides a verdict of history, but eventually the evidence compiled by the commission’s investigation could lead to a judicial accounting.

In its recommendations, the Commission took the bold step of calling for a repeal of Brazil’s 1979 amnesty law which has, to date, shielded military officers from human rights prosecutions.

Those prosecutions could be aided by evidence from declassified U.S. documentation. In support of the Commission’s work, the Obama administration agreed to a special declassification project on Brazil, identifying, centralizing and reviewing hundreds of still secret CIA, Defense and State Department records from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Last June, Vice President Biden personally delivered 42 documents into President Dilma Rousseff’s hands; more recently the U.S. Embassy passed another tranche of over 100 records, many of them from the CIA, to the Brazilian government. As part of a commitment Biden made to open U.S. archives, the administration is continuing to review hundreds of additional records to declassify and provide to the Brazilian government next year.

The Commissioners presented their report to President Rousseff on International Human Rights Day. Rousseff, herself a victim of torture by electric shock during the military dictatorship, was “moved to tears” as she received the report and received a standing ovation from the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony, according to the Washington Post. In her speech accepting the report, the President stated that “We hope this report prevents ghosts from a painful and sorrowful past from seeking refuge in the shadows of silence and omission.”

Read the three-volume Report

Brazil Truth Commission Report Website 

Volume I: Part I – III 

Volume I: Part IV-V 

Volume II 

Volume III: Introduction

Read Key Documents Provided by the United States

Document l: Department of State, “Widespread Arrests and Psychophysical Interrogation of Suspected Subversives,” Confidential, April 18, 1973

This intelligence cable, sent by the U.S. Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, provides detailed reporting on a “sophisticated and elaborate psychophysical” method of torture being employed by the Brazilian military against suspected militants. In response to growing international condemnation of human rights violations, the cable suggests, the Brazilian torturers have adopted more modern interrogation methods that leave less visible evidence of abuses. In cases where detainees are “eliminated,” the military is also deceiving the press by claiming they were killed in a “shoot-out” while trying to escape.

The cable was declassified on June 5, 2014, only eleven days before Biden’s trip to Brazil in order for him to provide it to President Rousseff as a diplomatic gesture. But key sections of the document are redacted, presumably at the request of the CIA, that identify the military units responsible for these atrocities — information that would be of critical use to the Brazilian Truth Commission as it attempts to hold the military accountable for the atrocities of the past.

Document 2: Department of State, “Political Arrests and Torture in São Paulo,” Confidential, May 8, 1973

The Consul General in Sao Paulo, Frederic Chapin, reports on a source described as “a professional informer and interrogator working for the military intelligence center in Osasco,” an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo. The source has provided graphic details on methods of abuse, including a Brazilian form of “waterboarding” that involved putting prisoners in vats of water that forced them to stand on their tiptoes for prolonged periods of time to be able to breath. The informant also provides a description of methods of executing prisoners so that their bodies could not be identified. Prisoners would be machine gunned from head to toe — a method referred to as “sewing” the suspect up.

This document was declassified in 2005, and initially provided to the Truth Commission by National Security Archive Brazil project director Peter Kornbluh. It played a key role in enabling researchers to identify the April 18, 1973, cable on psychophysical abuses, which is cited as a reference telegram. A memorandum of conversation with the informant/torturer, however, is also cited in this document and would be of exceptional value to the Truth Commission in obtaining additional information about the torture center in Osasco.

Document 3: Department of State, “Allegation of Torture in Brazil,” Secret, July 1, 1972

U.S. Ambassador William Rountree advises the State Department that openly protesting human rights “excesses” by the Brazilian military government will be counterproductive and “damage our general relations.” Ambassador Rountree encourages the State Department to oppose a piece of human rights legislation known as the “Tunney Amendment” which would link U.S. aid to Brazil to a U.S. government certification that the Brazilian regime was not engaged in human rights violations.

Document 4: Department of State, “The Esquadrão da Morte (Death Squad),” Limited Official Use, June 8, 1971

Ambassador Rountree submits an 11-page report on death squad activity in Brazil. He advises that there has been an “upsurge” of victims of unofficial operations in recent months, believed to be the work of off-duty policemen. In Sao Paulo, the death squads are reportedly led by Sergio Fleury, who has now been charged in at least one murder. Some of the victims are common prisoners, others political figures and militant opponents of the regime. Much of the information in the report is gleaned from newspaper articles; the report appears to contain almost no intelligence information.

Document 5: Department of State, “Conditions in DEOPS Prison as told by Detained American Citizen,” Confidential, October 7, 1970

This memorandum of conversation contains a report by a U.S. businessman, Robert Horth, who was detained by the military police in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Horth relates hearing from fellow Brazilian prisoners about torture at the prison where he is held in downtown Sao Paulo. The torture techniques include the Parrot Perch — known in Portuguese as “pau de arara” — and electrical shock to all parts of the body, as well as the “telephone technique” where an interrogator stands behind the seated prisoner and smacks both sides of his/her head repeatedly, almost destroying their eardrums.

Brazilian Commission Report Details Murder and Torture by US-backed Dictatorship

By Bill Van Auken

One day after the release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture in Washington, the government of Brazil officially unveiled a nearly 2,000-page report detailing the political murders, torture and other crimes carried out during two decades of dictatorship that began with a US-backed military coup in 1964.

The report was prepared by a National Truth Commission set up by President Dilma Rousseff in 2012 and is based on over 1,000 interviews with victims and some of the perpetrators of the dictatorship’s crimes as well as a review of official records, including from the country’s hospitals and morgues.

In a speech praising the report, Rousseff broke into tears when speaking about “those who lost family members, friends, companions and continue to suffer as if they died again each and every day.” The Workers Party (PT) president was herself imprisoned by the dictatorship for three years and subjected to electric shock and other tortures after joining an urban guerrilla group while a student under the military regime.

In the same speech, however, Rousseff declared that just as those who had “fallen in this fight confronting the illegal truculence of the state” were honored, so too, “we recognize and deeply respect the political pacts that have led us to re-democratization.”

The remark, which repeated virtually word for word a statement she issued on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 coup, was an unmistakable reference to the 1979 general amnesty imposed in the waning days of the military dictatorship. This law has left Brazil virtually the only country in Latin America not to prosecute any of those responsible for the thousands of political killings and endemic torture that the continent suffered under a series of military juntas.

The National Truth Commission, which named nearly 400 individuals, including ex-presidents, generals, police torturers, diplomats and doctors who collaborated in the torture, included in its recommendations a rather toothless call for those responsible to face criminal prosecution. In presenting the report to Rousseff, Pedro Dallari, the commission’s coordinator, stressed that, “It’s not the commission’s job to determine whether the amnesty law should apply or whether it should be revoked.”

Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court upheld the military’s self-amnesty as constitutional in 2010, while insisting that the statute of limitations would prevent prosecution in any case. Two justices interviewed by O Globo insisted that this remained the case and that the court’s word was final.

Both the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations have warned Brazil that it is in violation of international law in failing to prosecute state murders and torture, which are considered international crimes against humanity.

While the content of the report is horrific, and many of the filmed interviews of testimony by surviving torture victims moving, there is not that much new in the report, compared to previous investigations conducted by non-governmental groups, such as Projeto “Brasil: Nunca mais” [“Brazil: Never again” Project] nearly 30 years ago.

Cecilia Coimbra, a former political prisoner who founded the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais, described herself as “frustrated, revolted and outraged” by the report. “This history is being told in accordance with the interests of the forces that are in power,” she said, calling the document superficial and crafted to “soften the accusations against the military.”

The report correctly insists that political murders and torture were not the acts of individual military or police officers but rather, “Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the president of the republic and military ministers.”

The document presents detailed accounts of the deaths or disappearances of 434 individual students, factory workers, leftist politicians, journalists and others, while stressing that these numbers “certainly don’t correspond to the total of deaths and disappearances, but only to cases that it was possible to prove.”

Similarly, it documents numerous torture histories, without giving a precise number of victims. It does cite a previous estimate by the human rights secretary that “around 20,000 Brazilians were subjected to torture during the period of dictatorship.”

“Torture became systematically employed by the Brazilian state after the 1964 coup, whether as a method of collecting information or obtaining confessions (technique of interrogation), or as a means of disseminating fear (strategy of intimidation),” the report states. “It ceased being restricted to the violent methods already employed by the Brazilian police against common criminals, becoming more sophisticated and turning into the essence of the military system of political repression, based on the arguments of the supremacy of national security and the existence of a war against terrorism.”

This “sophistication” was facilitated in large measure by training and advisers provided by Washington. CIA and military intelligence officials were sent to Brazil to participate in this grisly repression, while Brazilian military and police officers were sent to the US Army’s School of the Americas and other institutions for instruction.

While the refusal of the Obama administration to declassify many CIA and Pentagon documents that implicate individuals from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on down in the crimes carried out against the Brazilian people, one document cited in the report gives an indication of the intimacy of US involvement.

It is the entry log of the DOPS [Department of Political and Social Order—the dictatorship’s political police] headquarters in Sao Paulo, a main torture center. It includes multiple entries for US officials, including Claris Halliwell, Lincoln Chapin and C. Harlow Duffin. Halliwell, listed as a political attaché (a title frequently used by CIA agents) at the US consulate in Sao Paulo, visited the center 47 times between 1971 and 1974, on a number of occasions signing in at night and leaving the next morning. Duffin was named by ex-CIA agent Philip Agee as his “desk chief” in Washington.

The same visitor logs show frequent visits to the torture center by leading Sao Paulo business figures, including the representative of the Federation of Industries of the State of Sao Paulo (FIESP), Geraldo Rezende de Matos. He came to the torture center 40 times in the course of just two months in 1971, also at times staying overnight. It is known that business leaders provided financing for the dictatorship’s repression and also fingered militant workers in their factories for abduction, torture and murder. The National Truth Commission’s report has studiously avoided the strong connection between profit interests and military state terror.

In addition to the torture training by US advisers, the British government is also named as a provider of such aid to the dictatorship. It describes one British intelligence innovation, known as the “geladeira” [refrigerator] in which prisoners were placed in a box measuring 1.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters high, making it impossible to either stand or lie down. Insulated from all light and sound, the box had cooling and heating systems capable of inflicting freezing temperatures or intolerable heat. A loudspeaker was used to emit screams and other terrifying noises at an overwhelming volume. Victims were kept in this device for days at a time without food or water.

Other barbaric methods had already been enumerated in previous reports. These include electric shocks to the genitals, inserting insects in body orifices, burning flesh, rape and other forms of sexual violence against both men and women, and procedures known by such names as the “parrot’s perch” and the “dragon’s chair” in which subjects were tortured to the point of death and beyond.

The commission’s report includes a recommendation for the removal of Brazil’s Military Police (PM) from military control. A recent report revealed that Brazilian police kill civilians at the rate of six a day, a level of violence that many connect to the impunity enjoyed by the military killers and torturers of the dictatorship.

Britain Taught Brazilian Dictatorship to Torture

Brazilian interrogators learned techniques from the British army, who had mastered their psychological torturing skills on suspected republicans in Northern Ireland.

British army officers trained Brazilian police in torture methods, perfected in Northern Ireland against people opposing British rule there, a report into human rights abuses during the dictatorship revealed.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured herself by the regime in the 1970s, wept as she presented the 2,000 page Truth Commission document Wednesday, which confirmed that 191 were killed and 243 disappeared.

Not only did Brazilian officials travel to the UK to learn the “English System,” but the study also shows that British officers returned the visit, teaching extreme interrogation at Brazilian police headquarters.

“At the end of 1970 we sent a group of army officers to England to learn the English system of interrogation. This consists of putting the prisoner in a cell incommunicado, a method known as the ‘refrigerator’,” the report quotes former general Hugo de Andrade Abreu.

Psychological torture techniques were adopted that the British mastered in Northern Ireland, designed to destabilize the suspect to the point of admitting to a crime.

“They were variations on the techniques used by the British army against Irish terrorists,” said Amilcar Lobo, an army psychiatrist who worked in a torture center nick-named the ‘house of death’, “they were destined to destructure the personality of the prisoners without touching them.”

Though more subtle, the study also uncovered British admission of involvement in the scheme, as well as the desire to disassociate themselves from it. The practices that the British taught Brazil were banned by Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1972, deemed too barbaric.

The Brazilian report, which took three years to complete, contains a secret letter from the British ambassador of the time, David Hunt. He wrote in 1972, “As you know, I think, they have in the past been influenced by suggestions and advice emanating from us; but this connection no longer exists … It is important that knowledge of this fact should be restricted.”

Another British official in Brazil, Sir Alan Munro, also alluded to the Northern Ireland link. “If the Brazilians were looking for techniques of interrogation used by British authorities, the example would have been the early years of Northern Ireland. This would have been undertaken on a Brazilian initiative, and the extent that it might reduce the most brutal methods, it would have been a step in the right direction,” he said to investigators.

Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship from 1964 until 1985.