AGÊNCIA DE REPORTAGEM E JORNALISMO INVESTIGATIVO

Napalm in the Ribeira Valley

Documents, debris and residents’ reports reveal an obscure story from the dictatorship: in 1970, the FAB (Força Aérea Brasileira, the Brazilian Air Force) bombarded a rural area near São Paulo with incendiary bombs

Republished by Upside Down World (09/02/2014)
Translated by Danica Jorden

 

Pedro Passos, or Pedrico, has had his life and memory marked by the bombs and remnants of the bombings carried out in 1970 by the military dictatorship in the forests where he was born and grew up, in the town of Cajati, Vale do Ribeira, at 200 kilometres from São Paulo. Throughout the years, he has found many pieces of a history that’s not in the schoolbooks; the last time, nearly 20 years ago, he found the remains of an incendiary bomb while clearing a site bordering the Aleixo River: a steel plate, discoloured by rust and moss, of about 60 x 40 centimetres, with a metal, cylindrical mass of about 5 centimetres in diameter in the middle of it bearing the number 528. In July of this year, he led reporters from Agência Pública to the spot, where there were still more findings: red rusted pieces of steel, twisted ribbons of aluminum, another metal cylinder, this time with the number 543. It’s the first time debris from Napalm bombs launched by the Brazilian Air Force has been gathered in the area. “I’d never seen anything like it,” said Pedrico, still able to recall the dates of the military mega-operation: from the end of April to the beginning of May, 1970.

“Operation Registro” was the largest mobilization in the history of the Second Army. It employed 2,954 men, including members of the Army’s Center for Information, infantry regiments and special forces parachutists and officers of the São Paulo Military Police and Highway Patrol and the DOPS (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social, Department of Political and Social Order) as well as the Navy to search the area and capture 9 members of the VPR (Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária, the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard) led by Captain Carlos Lamarca, who created two guerrilla training centres in the area.

Like the pieces of metal left behind in the forests of the Ribeira Valley, the pieces of this history were purposely relegated to be forgotten. Agência Pública found Pedrico – and the bomb – when they were going through the valley looking for evidence of the use of chemical weapons after having found French documentation of Napalm bombardments in the region. Twelve witnesses to the bombings were found and journalists were brought by residents to the places where craters made by the bombs dropped in the area could still be seen.

Contacted by reporters, the Brazilian Air Force would only say, through their press office: “we don’t have any records about the incidents in question.” 

According to a report written by commander of the Second Army General José Canavarro Pereira – and kept secret until last year (see here) – the FAB took an active part in “Operation Registro” through the 1st Aerotactical Force, commanded by Brigadier Hipólito. On April 20, four helicopters were sent out, two of them with firepower, and four “armed” T-6 aeroplanes. The report also mentioned B-26 planes, without specifying how many. These were the ones which carried out the bombardments in the region, without providing any protection for the small farmers. The only security measure adopted was a prohibition on entering the part of the forest where there were fields, hunting grounds or heart of palms. “The Army first came by car,” remembers resident Nelson Vieira, now 68 years old, who helped guide soldiers through the paths in the woods. “So they told us here: ‘Nobody goes there. Don’t go there where we’re going to burn up the place, because we’re going to catch those people. If you are there, you’re going to die, too.’”

“It Was a Real War”

Adilson Vieira Alves was 8-years-old when “Operation Registro” occurred. He remembers his exact first impression when he saw the FAB’s single engine planes: “We were hoeing a garlic field way up on top of the hill, my parents were working and I was playing. From there I started to see a formation on the horizon, at first I thought they were vultures. I started to hear helicopter sounds, tu tu tu tu, so I started to tell them, ‘look over there, they’re not birds’; it was a different sound than we were used to. Then I saw the helicopter formation flying over, passing above us, and my father said, ‘I think it’s something serious, it’s the police, I think it’s best we leave.’ We quickly started downhill and got out of there.

“Then the planes came. The planes were already flying low and already started dropping bombs that same day. We saw what they were doing and started going downhill. It looked like they were throwing eggs… Then we heard the noise and all that racket… And it wasn’t just for one day, it was more than a day, and there were other times they did it again.”

His older brother Oscar – who was 20 years old at the time – added: “It was like an enormous jug that fell and exploded. It was dangerous there, it wasted everything, cut down trees this wide, tore them out… You just saw something coming down and you didn’t know where it was going to land, so we were really afraid of them that if one of those planes were dropping so much from so high up, who would know where it would fall, right? That was the worst part of it for us,” he said. “It was really a war.”

History as Written

It’s hard to say exactly how many days the areas around the Vieira Alves ranch were bombarded, or exactly how many bombs were dropped there.

The Second Army secret report says that the FAB’s greatest mission was to “disturb the enemy through bombardments and machine gun fire.” But it is sparing in its details of the aerial attacks: on 30 April 1970, it reports only that “starting at 1030 hours, the area was bombarded with T6 and B26s;” on 4 May, it records that “starting at 1200, the 1stAerotactical Force bombarded the centre of the area.”

By April 28, however, a Wednesday, the Jornal do Brasil carried the headline: “Army Closes in on Guerrilla Stronghold.” The article on page 19 reports: “Since Friday, FAB planes have been dropping incendiary bombs on spots in the forest in the region of the Ribeira Valley where there were close to 20 guerrillas belonging to the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard (…). The bombardments, mainly carried out in the area where ore deposits are located, in Cajati in the Jacupiranga District, had FAB planes releasing large quantities of Napalm, a gelatinous inflammable gasoline. The bombardments began on Friday afternoon [the 24th], after government forces managed to determine the probable location of the guerrillas, led by reconnaissance groups which included civilians familiar with the forest. The use of incendiary bombs was the only way the military could find to make the guerrillas leave their hiding places, which are difficult to access.”

The report had international repercussions and the next day, The Los Angeles Times published an article on the subject: “Napalm Used on Brazilian Rebel Hideouts,” read the title, leading the Military to complain in “Succinct Report on the Operation:” “The operations’ secrecy was maintained by preventing the press from entering the area, but this did not prevent several newspapers from publishing information about the operations, as the DST [destacamento, Department of Information Operations] was not authorized to censor articles in São Paulo, Paraná and Guanabara [Rio de Janeiro] newspapers.”

On the other side of the fence, Sergeant José Araújo Nóbrega, one of Lamarca’s eight commanders who were trying to escape the military siege, watched the bombs meant for them from afar. “I have no idea what their criteria were. I think they thought that we were hiding out in a certain area and they bombarded that region based on conjecture, but we had already passed through. There was a location there near the area by Capelinha, after Cajati, there is a village there at the very top of the hill, that they bombarded next to. They thought we were there.”

The Capelinha area was searched until May 9, when the first phase of Operation Registro was over. During that period, the military set up roadblocks and controlled villages in the interior, imposing a rigid curfew. They also arrested dozens of people, among them only 2 guerrillas, Sergeant Darcy Rodrigues and José Lavecchia, tortured in front of regional farmers. Military forces then followed the tracks of those remaining up to the town of Sete Barras, south of the Quilombo River, a region inhabited by diverse Quilombo communities at the edge of today’s Carlos Botelho Forest Reserve. The Second Army’s report points out that, “patrols were withdrawn from the area and the 1st Aerotactical Force machine gunned and bombarded the area on 29 May.”

Unaware

“Truthfully, people were unaware,” is how Jonas Braz de Oliveira, then president of the Chamber of Deputees of Sete Barras, sums it up. “The bombing was between Formosa and the [Carlos Botelho] forest reserve. There, yes, bombs were set off. It seems to me that it was just to intimidate, because in a land mass of 1200 hectares if you’re going to drop bombs, you’re not going to hit anyone. We all saw it. But it was only felt there,” he recalls.

Two other guerrillas who were caught in the operation, Edmauro Gopfert and Sergeant Nóbrega, lost the group and were picked up on May 10 and 11, well before the last recorded bombardment. On the 31st of that month, the five remaining members of the VPR reached the road that links Sete Barras with São Miguel Arcanjo, where they subdued an Army carrier and managed to escape the siege by fleeing in the direction of São Paulo – before killing a police officer, Lieutenant Alberto Mendes Júnior, in a sadly noted episode. Lamarca was the only one found – and executed – the next year in the interior of Bahia State.

But despite the fiasco of “Operation Registro,” General José Canavarro Pereira writes in the final report: “We have magnificently achieved a positive integration of the Army, Air Force and Navy, reinforcing our already existing confidence in each other. We feel that Operation Registro has had a frankly favorable outcome.”

French military attaché knew all about it

French military attachés took part in Army Chief-of-Staff meetings and had privileged access to the military operations, according to secret files released 30 years later in France. They were the Brazilian military’s friends and advisers, especially during the most repressive years – the most notorious case is that of general and torture instructor Paul Aussaresses, known as “The Hangman of Algiers.”

Likewise, while the Second Army tried to distance Brazilian journalists from the staging of events, attaché Yves Boulnois had free access and accompanied Operation Registro with great interest for a month. In his report to the French Ministry of Defense, written in May 1970, he describes everything he was able to observe in the field, including military techniques and the material utilized, as one of the objectives of being an attaché was to sell war material produced by France.

In a 1970 secret document (see here e here), he describes it thusly: “Army units closed off the zone between the cities of Cananeia, Eldorado Paulista, Registro and Iguape (about 2500 km2) to carry out searches while aeronautical units bombarded lesss accessible zones with explosives and napalm and aided land troops with armed helicopters. The coast was monitored by the Navy while the Military Police controlled all vehicles and verified people’s identification.”

Before the real operations Boulnois was present for, at least 25 foreign military attachés attended a demonstration, in the straits between Rio de Janeiro and Cabo Frio, of the 1st Embarked Aviation Group on board aircraft carrier “Minas Gerais,” with napalm bombardments made by seven P-16 double engine planes designed for anti-submarine action, according to the Jornal do Brasil.

FAB Shows Off Our Napalm Bombs

But this was not the Brazilian military’s first demonstration of napalm; actually, incendiary bombs were used in diverse Aeronautical Command aerial exhibitions. On 24 March 1970, in a ceremony to open activities for the 2nd Aerotactic Force at the Santa Cruz (RJ) base presided over by the Minister of Aeronautics, Brigadier Márcio de Souza e Melo, F-8, TF-7 and TF-33 fighter jets carried out bombardments with land firing and napalm bombs, according to another report in the Jornal do Brasil. On 19 October the same year, the FAB held an “air show” that included a simulated bombardment at the Fortaleza Air Base in commemoration of “Wing Week” the reached the beaches of Mucuripe, Náutico and Diários.

In 1971, the use of napalm was openly discussed by the Federal Police to eradicate marijuana plantations, according to information given by military sources to the Jornal do Brasil. The case drew controversy. In June, General Nilo Canepa, director-general of the Federal Police, affirmed in a group interview that “the mass destruction of plantations would be a great step towards the eradication of evil.” He said, however, it would be difficult to locate the plantations exactly. The debate even inspired a Henfil cartoon.

Months later, in October 1971, the JB noted that planes from the Santa Cruz air base in Rio were involved in a Fluminense military police operation to hunt for a gang of assailants. The “tumultuous chase counted upon the utilization of FAB planes from the Santa Cruz Air Base, which dropped napalm bombs on their hiding places,” read the 16 October report.

The use of Napalm was in vogue at that time, according to revelations by American researcher Robert Neer in the book, “Napalm, an American Biography,” published by Harvard University. Napalm bombardments were carried out in September 1975 against guerrillas in Peru, and in March 1967 against the guerrilla Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle (at least 150 bombs weighing 100 and 50 kilos were furnished by the Argentine government, according to a secret report of the Center for Foreign Information, or CIEX).

It wasn’t until 9 June 1972 that the legendary photo of children burned by Napalm in Vietnam spread across the globe, generating worldwide reaction.

The same year, according to documents released by the National Truth Commission, the Brazilian Air Force bombarded three areas with Napalm to suppress guerrillas in Araguaia, something that has already been exposed in reporting by journalist Luiz Maklouf Carvalho.

Questioned as to how the bombs used by the FAB were obtained and who made them, the press office responded, “As a matter of national security, information on the arsenal is classified and therefore cannot be made available.”

“Napalm is very difficult to produce, it can be made out of gasoline or other petroleum-based substance transformed into a gel by various chemicals,” explains Robert Neer. The fire is produced by a mixture of napalm with white phosphorous, detonated by an explosive inside the bomb. “During the ’70s, the United States had made the formula public, and therefore many armies were using it. Even so, napalm manufacture was under a patent belonging to the American government.” International pressure brought about – only in 1980 – the prohibition of using these bombs in civilian areas through the UN Convention on Conventional Arms. Brazil only signed the convention in 1995. In combat areas, they are still permitted under international law.

As it is a petrochemical, explains Robert Neer, napalm burns for a long time and at high temperatures – creating great and immediate destruction, but leaving few vestiges with the passage of time. “Most of the material is burned off, so there isn’t environmental contamination. But for people who have been directly affected, the effects are terrible, because napalm even burns the bones.”

“These bomb fragments confirm what has always been said, that there was a bombardment in an area this close to São Paulo, they bombarded indiscriminately, including against the local population,” says Ivan Seixas, coordinator of the State Truth Commission of the São Paulo Legislative Assembly.  “For those of us recovering the truth, it’s very important to tell this story, as raw as it may be.”

Back to the Valley

Lacking official recognition by the Brazilian State, residents in the Ribeira Valley are still in the dark about the dangers they were exposed to – and about the theater of war in which they involuntarily took part. Up until a few years ago, bombs were found in the middle of the forest still being used by an unaware population. One of them ended up as an ornament next to the bed of Silvio Moreira, or Silvinho: “It was so rusted, you couldn’t say what color it was, just the color of iron; and it had a white powder, like chalk … I took some of the material that was inside, and I lit it to see if it would explode. From here to there I had a red trolley, then I took it home, I think I kept it for two months or so, people say I kept it under the bed, but I left it in the corner, right in the room,” he recalls.

The one telling about another bomb, that for months became a bench on the side of the road, is Zé Vieira, the best storyteller in Capelinha. “Two were found there at the turn by Mané’s, which led to the Aleixo. They pulled it over to the side of the road like this, dragged it, and then some guy passed by who was going to work there, they sat on it there, by the side of the road. A drunk guy, you know? Got there, sat on top of it and lit a cigarette to see if it would catch fire, if it would catch fire, what a disgrace, and it didn’t, so he left, eh!” The same bomb would be detonated “by the authorities,” but no one could say with any certainty when or by whom. And so, History becomes a tale, one more of the many tales in the region.

Memories of the Siege

“They mistreated” many people. “They tormented” Maneco. These are the words Capelinha residents use to remember the Army’s conduct during the military siege that mobilized almost 3,000 men to capture the VPR militants. “We were a bit afraid. And the worst was we were afraid the police would arrest us, they didn’t let anybody leave,” relates Oscar Vieira, 65-years-old, whose story is not recorded in any official document. He was one of dozens of people held by the military during the operation’s first phase. The military instituted a real state of emergency there. They prevented residents from circulating freely in the forest unless they had written authorization, and decreed an overnight “curfew.” Those who dared go out without permission were detained. “I was picked up on the road here, on the street. I didn’t have a gun, I had nothing. They picked me up like a criminal, and from then on I was really scared. They kept instigating, asking questions. They were insulting the people, right? Humiliating them. Calling them bum, thief, criminal,” remembers Oscar, who was held captive by the Army for two days at the military encampment set up at Vila Tatu. “When they picked someone up, they put a guard on them and didn’t let them leave. There were three guards, two on one side and one on the other, all armed.” Before they got to the encampment, he was put through more “humiliation” by the side of the road: “They were pointing the gun and ordering me to shut my mouth, firing above me to see if they could intimidate me. They fired a pistol about 60 times above my head to see if they could intimidate me. The bullet shell fell on me.”

The military’s actions against the population is still today one of the major phantoms surrounding the story of the military siege. In order to prevent the guerrillas from escaping, detentions were indiscriminate, as the Jornal do Brasil itself reported on May 5: “on the 17th day of operations aimed at arresting the terrorists who were planning to train the guerrillas in the Ribeira Valley, 120 people had already been detained, out of whom only 23 continue to be held.” One of those arrested was the former mayor of Jacupiranga, Manoel de Lima, who owned the land acquired by the VPR to set up training camps. A much beloved character in the region, “Maneco” was subjected to torture sessions over several days. But besides him, there is no more information on the prisons that were created, nor about who was held in them. At that time, only two guerrillas, Sergeant Darcy Rodrigues and José Lavecchia, had effectively been captured.

Nelson Vieira, who came to cut trees for the Army’s search, still remembers the day when two prisoners arrived at the military encampment. “They arrived here on the patio, all ragged, and they were putting them on the ground in handcuffs, face down, ‘oh, we got one more here.’ And the police would come, pick up a sandwich and come next to the guy and say, ‘want a snack?’, he would turn, shake his head, and say ‘here’s your snack,’ and kick him with those big boots right in his face. And then they ate their snack. It was too much. Too much punishment. Too many beatings. I don’t know if they ended up killing those people.”

The torture inflicted in front of residents was recounted by Sergeant Darcy Rodrigues in the book “Sergeant Darcy, Lamarca’s Lieutenant.” Before arriving in Capelinha, he recalls, two of the arrested were paraded through the streets of Jacupiranga. “They made us march 200 meters in the little town, practically naked, in shorts, our bodies covered in marks, the torture that had been inflicted upon us visible to the naked eye, in a grotesque and undignified scene.” The torture continued at the military encampment. “We were kept tied up, laying in the dampness, our arms and legs splayed out, tied to stakes at our ankles and wrists. (…) Obviously we couldn’t move or even turn our bodies. In this humiliating and dehumanizing condition, we spent days immobilized, rain or shine – it rains a lot in the region, almost every day – exposed to insects and all the temperature changes.”

After 20 days, the Army suddenly took down the encampment and left without any explanation. Nelson recalls vividly the sensation of what it was like for those from there. “The mayor [Manoel de Lima] suffered… Oh, they gave him electric shock treatment to make him talk, but he didn’t know anything. Nobody knew anything, because how could anyone know what they [the guerrillas] wanted to do here, right? Now the Army knew full well that it was another country that was trying to get in here and run us out of here.” There in Capelinha, the history of Brasil is still back in 1970.

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