Dilma Rousseff on trial during the military dictatorship. Photo: São Paulo Public Archive
As Brazil grapples with one of the deepest political crises of its history, another controversy has surfaced, this time during the vote on 17 April in the Chamber of Deputies to open an impeachment process against suspended President Dilma Rousseff.
It happened during the 316th vote. One of the deputies, who belonged to a group dedicating their decision to “god, the fatherland, and family”, openly lauded the torturer who directed the DOI-CODI, the entity controlled by the army that was responsible for the repression during Brazil's military dictatorship. Deputy Jair Bolsonaro proudly praised the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who he also referred to as “the terror of Dilma Rousseff”.
His vote caused indignation both among those for and against impeachment. But the deputy — who is proud of his homophobic opinions — also seemed to create an opening for the slice of Brazil’s population that supports or minimizes the crimes committed by the state under the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985.
These are people who believe that, in the name of “saving Brazil from the communists”, the disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture were justified. Even in 2016, this group remains vocal – enough for “fans” of Brilhante Ustra’s Facebook page to increase by 3,300% in the week following the vote.
It was this same sentiment that aided the rise of dictatorships in South America during the second half of the 20th century. In Brazil, the regime left 191 dead and 243 disappeared, according to the National Truth Commission’s report, released at the end of 2014.
Brazil was the last of the South American countries to implement a national truth commission to investigate state crimes by their respective dictatorships — Chile, Argentina and Uruguay did this in the 1980s, soon after democratization, and repeated the exercise in the 2000s. And while other countries on the continent have taken important steps to revise amnesty laws, Brazil is still only beginning to discuss the matter. For Lorena Balardini, coordinator of the Centre of Legal and Social Studies, which is pioneering the investigation of historical memory in relation to the region’s dictatorships, Brazil “is the country which has progressed the least” regarding reconciliation with its military past.
Brilhante Ustra was the first of Brazil’s torturers recognized as such by the country's justice system, but he died last year, before he could be judged. The man responsible for directing one of the military dictatorship’s biggest centres of repression — from September 1970 to 1974, 502 cases of torture and more than 40 murders were reported — was brought to trial due to proceedings initiated by three of his victims.
In light of Deputy Bolsonaro's comments, Global Voices has gathered excerpts from five accounts from political prisoners, four of them as told to the National Truth Commission, which leave no doubt: torture was common practice in the military dictatorship. The testimonies have been edited for clarity.
‘They drilled through skin, flesh, bone’
Cristina Moraes de Almeida: she was not an activist, but had acquaintances in political movements. The student was imprisoned three times, and each time she encountered Ustra. During one of her stays, the torturers faked a rebellion in the cell to justify the wounds to her abdomen. In another, she had three fingers of her right hand and her left foot broken during a torture session.
In a session coordinated by Ustra — under the pseudonym Tibiriçá — and Sérgio Fleury, the colonel ordered that she be “punished” for “wearing long trousers in a public office”.
Cristina Moraes de Almeida –O Tibiriçá repetiu: “Tira a calça, esqueceu que não pode vir de calça em uma repartição pública?”, aos berros. Eu não vou tirar calça para nada. Estou quebrada, com dor.
Glenda Mezarobba (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) – Você estava vestida, até aí?
Cristina Moraes de Almeida – Estava vestida até aí, mas a calça bem desabotoada, bem desalinhada, já rasgada. “Com essa calça justa” – ele disse. – “Acaba de tirar a roupa dela!”. Minha calça estava bem desabotoada, bem… a blusa.
Glenda Mezarobba (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) – Ele mandou quem tirar sua roupa?
Cristina Moraes de Almeida – Os encapuzados. Eu comecei a me encolher. Ele puxou a perna, rasgando minha calça, acabando de rasgar a minha calça. Ele pega uma furadeira, e me furou daqui até aqui, com uma furadeira.
Glenda Mezarobba (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) – Com uma furadeira, uma furadeira?
Cristina Moraes de Almeida – Elétrica. Furadeira. Eu não vi mais nada. (…) Aí ligaram [a furadeira], porque o choque elétrico, não estava funcionando. (…) Nove meses sem caminhar. (…) Furaram o osso. Furaram derme, epiderme, o osso.
Cristina Moraes de Almeida: “Tibiriçá repeated, shouting, ‘Remove the trousers, did you forget you can’t wear trousers in a public office?’ I was not going to take off the trousers for anything. I was broken, with pain.”
Glenda Mezarobba (National Truth Commission): “You were clothed, up to that point?”
Cristina Moraes de Almeida: “I was clothed up to that point, but the trousers were unbuttoned, very disheveled, and already ripped. ‘With those tight trousers’, he said, ‘just take off her clothes!’ My trousers were quite unbuttoned, and… the blouse.”
Glenda Mezarobba (National Truth Commission): “Who did he order to remove your clothes?”
Cristina Moraes de Almeida: “The hooded men. I began to shrink back. He pulled my leg, ripping my trousers, finishing ripping my trousers. He took a drill, and stabbed me with it from here to here, with a drill.”
Glenda Mezarobba (National Truth Commission): “With a drill, a drill?”
Cristina Moraes de Almeida: “An electric one. A drill. I didn’t see anymore. […] They started that then [the drill], because the electric shocks were not working. […] Nine months not walking. […] They drilled the bone. They drilled through skin, flesh, bone.
‘There was a moment when I didn’t know where it hurt anymore’
Isabel Fávero: ex-guerrilla from the armed group VAR-Palmares (Revolutionary Armed Vanguard – Palmares). She and her husband were imprisoned on 5 May 1970, when they had already separated from the guerrilla group and were teachers dedicated to adult literacy in Nova Aurora, in Paraná state.
(…) o prazer deles era torturar um frente ao outro e dizer: “olhe, sua vadia, ó ele está apanhando por culpa sua que você não quer colaborar”, entendeu? (…) além de ser torturada física e psicologicamente, a mulher é vadia, a palavra mesmo era “puta”, “menina decente, olha para a sua cara, com essa idade, olha o que tu está fazendo aqui, que educação os teus pais te deram, tu é uma vadia, tu não presta”.
Enfim, eu não me lembro bem se no terceiro, quarto dia, eu entrei em processo de aborto. Eu estava grávida de dois meses, então, eu sangrava muito. Eu não tinha como me proteger, eu usava papel higiênico, e já tinha mal cheiro. Eu estava suja, e eu acho que, eu acho não, eu tenho quase certeza que eu não fui estuprada, porque era constantemente ameaçada, porque eles tinham nojo, tinham nojo de mim.
E eu lembro que no dia em que nós fomos presos, exatamente no dia 4, nós tínhamos estado em Cascavel, e quando a gente saiu da ginecologista, tinha um veículo militar, mas a gente em momento nenhum pensou que eles estivessem vigiando a gente, eles já estavam no encalço da gente, eles seguiram, não é, esse dia eles nos seguiram o dia todo, e o meu marido dizia, “por favor, não façam nada com ela, podem, podem me torturar, mas ela tá grávida”, e eles riam, debochavam, “isso é história, ela é suja, mas não tem nada a ver”, enfim.
Em nenhum momento isso foi algum tipo de preocupação, em relação [pausa, voz embargada]. Eu certamente abortei por conta dos choques que eu tive nos primeiros dias, nos órgãos genitais, nos seios, ponta dos dedos, atrás das orelhas, aquilo provocou obviamente um desequilíbrio, eu lembro que eu tinha, muita, muita, muita dor no pescoço, porque quando a gente, quem sofreu choque, sabe? A gente joga a cabeça pra trás, aí tinha um momento que eu não sabia mais aonde doía, o que, doía em todo lado, mas enfim. Certamente foi isso. E eles ficavam muito irritados de me ver suja e sangrando e cheirando mal, enfim. Eu acho que ficavam até com mais raiva, e me machucavam mais ainda.
[…] they took pleasure in torturing one of us in front of the other, saying, “Look, you bitch, oh, he’s taking the blame for you not wanting to cooperate”, you understand? Besides being tortured physically and psychologically, the woman is called a slut, the word really was “whore”, “decent girl, look at your face, at that age, look what you're doing here, with the education your parents gave you, you’re a slut, you’re worthless”.
In the end, I don’t really remember if it was the third, fourth day, I started to have a miscarriage. I was two months pregnant, then, I bled a lot. I had no way to protect myself, I used toilet paper, and I already smelled bad. I was dirty, and I think, no, I’m almost certain that I wasn’t raped – because I was constantly threatened – because they were repulsed by me.
And I remember that the day we were arrested, on the 4th exactly, we had been in Cascavel and when we left the gynecologist, there was a military vehicle, but no-one at the time thought that they were watching us, they were already tracking people, they followed, isn’t it, that day they followed us the whole day, and my husband said, “Please, don’t do anything to her, you can, you can torture me, but she’s pregnant”, and they laughed, mocked, “That’s bullshit, she is dirty, but that has nothing to do with it”, anyway.
At no moment was this a concern, about [pause, voice stifled]. I certainly aborted because of the beating I had over the first days, to the genital organs, the breasts, fingertips, behind the ears – that obviously provoked a disruption, I remember that I had a lot, a lot, a lot of pain in my neck, because when we suffered beatings, you know? We threw our heads back; there was a moment when I didn’t know where it hurt anymore, that it hurt everywhere, but anyway. It was certainly that. And they were very angry to see me dirty and bleeding and smelling bad, anyway. I think they became even angrier, and hurt me even more.
‘I served as a guinea pig for a torture class’
Dulce Chaves Pandolfi: student and member of the armed guerrilla group ALN (National Liberation Alliance). She was imprisoned on 20 August 1970, at the age of 21.
In testimony at the State Truth Commission of Rio de Janeiro, Dulce recounted, “When I entered, I heard a phrase that still today echoes in my ears: ‘Here there is no God, no fatherland, no family’”.
No dia 20 de outubro, dois meses depois da minha prisão e já dividindo a cela com outras presas, servi de cobaia para uma aula de tortura. O professor, diante dos seus alunos, fazia demonstrações com o meu corpo. Era uma espécie de aula prática, com algumas dicas teóricas. Enquanto eu levava choques elétricos, pendurada no tal do pau de arara, ouvi o professor dizer: “essa é a técnica mais eficaz”. Acho que o professor tinha razão.
Como comecei a passar mal, a aula foi interrompida e fui levada para a cela. Alguns minutos depois, vários oficiais entraram na cela e pediram para o médico medir minha pressão. As meninas gritavam, imploravam, tentando, em vão, impedir que a aula continuasse. A resposta do médico Amílcar Lobo, diante dos torturadores e de todas nós, foi: “ela ainda aguenta”. E, de fato, a aula continuou.
A segunda parte da aula foi no pátio. O mesmo onde os soldados, diariamente, faziam juramento à bandeira, cantavam o Hino Nacional. Ali fiquei um bom tempo amarrada num poste, com o tal do capuz preto na cabeça. Fizeram um pouco de tudo. No final, comunicaram que, como eu era irrecuperável, eles iriam me matar, que eu ia virar “presunto”, termo usado pelo Esquadrão da Morte. Ali simularam meu fuzilamento. Levantaram rapidamente o capuz, me mostraram um revólver, apenas com uma bala, e ficaram brincando de roleta-russa. Imagino que os alunos se revezavam no manejo do revólver porque a “brincadeira” foi repetida várias vezes.
On 20 October, two months after my imprisonment and already sharing the cell with other prisoners, I served as a guinea pig for a torture class. The teacher, in front of his students, did demonstrations with my body. It was a type of practical class, with some theoretical tips. I took electric shocks while hung in the “pau de arara” [torture technique common under the dictatorship] and I heard the teacher say “this is the most efficient technique”. I think the teacher was right.
As I began to feel ill, the class was interrupted and I was taken to the cell. A few minutes later, several officers entered the cell and asked for the doctor to measure my blood pressure. The girls screamed, begged, trying in vain to prevent the class continuing. The doctor Amilcar Lobo’s answer, in front of the torturers and all of us, was, “She can still take it.” And, indeed, the class continued.
The second part of the class was in the yard. The same where the soldiers, every day, pledged allegiance to the flag and sang the national anthem. There I spent a long time tied to a post, with a black hood over my head. They did a bit of everything. In the end, they said since I was irredeemable, they would kill me, I was going to become “presunto” [ham], a term used by the Death Squad. There they staged a mock shooting. They quickly raised the hood, showed me a gun with only one bullet, and were playing Russian roulette. I imagine that the students took turns in handling the gun because the “game” was repeated several times.
‘It is not heroic, you are maddeningly afraid’
Leslie Denise Beloque: ex-militant from the ALN. She was arrested on 29 January 1970, at the age of 21. Her brother, sister-in-law, and a sister were also imprisoned and tortured by the military regime.
A tortura é uma delas visivelmente, as pessoas ainda não conseguem falar dela, honestamente. Inclusive porque não é heroico, ter sido presa e ter sido torturada isso não te faz herói, não te torna heroica, não é uma experiência heroica. Muito pelo contrário: É humilhante, te humilha, é uma questão de extremo sofrimento, não é heróico, você tem medo adoidado, por várias vezes você tem medo quando você fica apavorado quando você ouve o barulho da chave, então não é só uma questão heroico, só bonita e só: “Ai nossa eu fui torturada.” Não, é trazer essas coisas de quantas vezes você teve um medo danado, o pavor em várias situações, você saber que toda a noite o cara te chama para te torturar, ou no plantão do fulano de tal que acabou de entrar. E discutir nessa dimensão, sem esse heroísmo, sem essa… Na forma em que ela é.
Claro que as pessoas que passaram por essa experiência, despojar esse caráter mítico e dizer a coisa como ela é, as sensações que você teve de coragem, de medo, de pavor, de tudo. Porque cada um é isso, foi buscando as suas estratégias de sobrevivência e foi assim, uns conseguiram e outros não. E a mim resta uma pergunta, resta essa questão: Será que os companheiros que provocaram a morte, foi por que perceberam que não iam aguentar? E a morte foi uma forma de garantir que ele não falaria?
Torture is one of those things obviously; people still cannot talk about it, honestly. Partly because it is not heroic; to have been arrested and tortured does not make you a hero, does not make you heroic, it is not a heroic experience. Quite the contrary: It's humiliating, it humiliates you, it is a matter of extreme suffering, it is not heroic, you are maddeningly afraid, often you are afraid when you panic because you hear the noise of a key, so it's not just a heroic matter, just beautiful and lonely, “Oh my goodness, I was tortured.” No, it is to carry these things with you, of how many times you felt a damn fear, a dread in so many situations, you know that all night the guy calls you to torture you, or it’s the turn of such-and-such guard who just entered. And discussing this aspect, without this heroism, without this … The way that torture actually is.
Of course, people who have experienced it strip away this mythical character and describe it as it is, the sensations that you have of courage, fear, dread, everything. Because it’s like that for each person, looking for survival strategies, some manage to do it, others don’t. For me there remains one question, just this issue: for those companions who committed suicide, was it because they thought they couldn’t bear it? And death was a way of guaranteeing that they wouldn’t talk?
‘The marks of torture are me. They are part of me.’
Dilma Rousseff: member of the VAR-Palmares and held prisoner for three years. In 2001, Dilma gave testimony to the Human Rights Commission of Minas Gerais, but her account only became public in 2012 in a report by the newspaper Estado de Minas.
“Tinha muito esquema de tortura psicológica, ameaças. Eles interrogavam assim: ‘Me dá o contato da organização com a polícia?’ Eles queriam o concreto. ‘Você fica aqui pensando, daqui a pouco eu volto e vamos começar uma sessão de tortura.’ A pior coisa é esperar por tortura.”
“Depois (vinham) as ameaças: ‘Eu vou esquecer a mão em você. Você vai ficar deformada e ninguém vai te querer. Ninguém vai saber que você está aqui. Você vai virar um ‘presunto’ e ninguém vai saber’. Em São Paulo me ameaçaram de fuzilamento e fizeram a encenação. Em Minas não lembro, pois os lugares se confundem um pouco.”
“Quando eu tinha hemorragia, na primeira vez foi na Oban (…) foi uma hemorragia de útero. Me deram uma injeção e disseram para não bater naquele dia. Em Minas, quando comecei a ter hemorragia, chamaram alguém que me deu comprimido e depois injeção. Mas me davam choque elétrico e depois paravam. Acho que tem registros disso no final da minha prisão, pois fiz um tratamento no Hospital das Clínicas.”
“Fiquei presa três anos. O estresse é feroz, inimaginável. Descobri, pela primeira vez, que estava sozinha. Encarei a morte e a solidão. Lembro-me do medo quando minha pele tremeu. Tem um lado que marca a gente o resto da vida.”
“As marcas da tortura sou eu. Fazem parte de mim.”
I had a routine of psychological torture and threats. They questioned like this: ‘Are you going to give me the organization’s contact with the police?’ They wanted concrete answers. ‘You stay there thinking, soon I'll be back and we'll start a torture session.’ The worst thing is waiting for torture.
Later, the threats. I’m going to lose my hand in you. You’re going to be deformed and no-one will want you. No one will know that you are here. You’re going to become a ‘presunto’ and no-one will know’. In “São Paulo they threatened me with shooting, and staged it. In Minas I don’t remember, as the places get jumbled a bit.
When I had a hemorrhage, the first time was in Oban […] it was a hemorrhage of the uterus. They gave me an injection and said not to beat me that day. In Minas, when I began to bleed, they called someone who gave me a pill and then an injection. But they gave me an electric shock and then stopped. I think that there are records of this at the end of my imprisonment, since I was treated in the Hospital das Clínicas [a medical complex].
I was imprisoned for three years. The stress is ferocious, unimaginable. I discovered, for the first time, that I was alone. I faced death and loneliness. I remember the fear when my skin trembled. It has an aspect that marks people for the rest of their lives.
The marks of torture are me. They are part of me.