Why Brazil Is Excavating An Infamous Torture Center 40 Years Later

An archaeological project are trying to recover the country’s painful history of torture during the military regime

11 de agosto de 2022
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In 1964, the Brazilian Armed Forces carried out a coup, with support from the United States government, and installed a dictatorship that lasted for over 20 years. Although free elections returned to the country in the 1980s and a new constitution was approved in 1988, Brazil has lagged other South American countries when it comes to reconciling itself with the aftermaths of the dictatorship.

Challenging the crimes of the military elites is portrayed as a “leftist” cause in Brazil. Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has even celebrated — on several occasions, including during the Congress session that voted to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff — the torture that was committed by the regime.

In contrast, countries like Argentina and Chile have made big strides in reckoning with their bloody past and prosecuting members of the military juntas.

SÂO PAULO — For the first time, an archaeological, historical and forensic project in Brazil intends to excavate the grounds and buildings of the former headquarters of a DOI-CODI (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations), the much feared intelligence agency that carried out violent political repression during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985).

At least 6,700 political prisoners passed through its dungeons from 1969 to 1975 alone. An uncountable number were tortured and between 52 and 70 people were murdered, according to figures gathered by historian Deborah Neves.

Recovering historical memory

Through controlled excavations, scrapings, scans, and x-rays, among other means, the project seeks to better understand the spaces used to repress people and, in an ideal scenario, to locate traces of the passage of former prisoners, many of whom remain disappeared today.

The focus of the investigation is the set of five buildings erected on a 1,500 square meter plot of land in São Paulo that housed the headquarters of the São Paulo DOI-CODI for 14 years.

The complex has two entrances, one on 921 Tutoia Street, marked by the presence of watchtowers visible from the street, which confirms the military purpose of the building, and the other on 1030 Tomás Carvalhal Street, in the neighborhood of Paraíso, in the southern part of the city of São Paulo.

In the 1970s, after the São Paulo experience, nine other capital cities in Brazil developed their own DOI-CODI headquarters, all marked by reports of extreme violence and crimes.

“Our goal is to use forensic resources in order to provide a social response. Ultimately, we want to help turn the site into a memorial so that people will know and reflect on what occurred in that place,” said archeology professor Cláudia Regina Plens, coordinator of the research project and of Archeological Studies Laboratory of the History Department of the Federal University of São Paulo.

“Today there are still people who doubt that the dictatorship happened. So we need to bring this to the public. Several countries are recovering this memory and Brazil is still behind in all of this.”

A view from above of the center

Using technology to find traces of the past

The first step of the project began in August, with the use of radar equipment to try to locate possible changes made to the walls and floor over the years. The researchers have no information that there have been burials inside the complex, but the geo-radar will also be able to identify anything in this regard. The 3D scanning stage will start in October.

The research team also intends to search for blood stains invisible to the naked eye and inscriptions made by prisoners on the old cell walls, depending on access to new resources and authorizations from public agencies.

“We are going to peel walls, excavate the floor in a controlled manner, and look for evidence with luminol, forensic lights, specific cell phone applications, and drones. In short, we are going to put everything we have at our disposal to try to find these traces. Later we will do a 3D scan of the whole place,” said Plens.

As this type of research is unusual, because it deals with events that occurred more than 40 years ago, experts do not know if bloodstains would allow for a DNA analysis, that is, if the DNA has withstood the passage of time. If it is possible to recover DNA, the result could potentially be compared with samples from relatives of the dead and the disappeared.

The five buildings that make up the former DOI-CODI (a “police station”, which included six cells plus a “strong cell”, a storeroom, a house sometimes used by the commander, lodging and a mechanical workshop) have been painted, renovated and altered over the years. The bars of the old cells, for example, have been removed. One of the objectives of the research will be to recreate the old set-up of the rooms.

In the case of Vladimir Herzog, a journalist tortured and murdered inside the building in 1975, the research will try to identify the correct place where his body was hung by the military to simulate a suicide, as shown in the photographs staged by the military at the time.

An organized instrument of repression

The Brazilian dictatorship installed the DOI-CODI in September 1970, only 800 meters away from the Southeast Military Command, the main military unit in the region. For four years (1970-1974), this machine of arrests, torture, and executions was commanded by Army Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra (1932-2015), treated as a hero and example by President Jair Bolsonaro and his vice president, Reserve General Hamilton Mourão.

Deborah Neves, PhD in history from University of Campinas, coordinates a working group on DOI-CODI that brings together several institutions.

“DOI-CODI was the main organ that united different arms of repression, federal, civil and military police. It was a massive laboratory for the whole system of investigation, interrogation, and deaths. It was a synthesis of what the repressive apparatus of the state was. It was the great Leviathan of repression,” said Neves.

The researcher rejects the version that the torture, assassinations, and disappearances that occurred during the dictatorship were promoted by underground groups or by groups of soldiers supposedly outside of the control of Brazil’s military hierarchy.

“When we study the nature of the organs of repression, we realize that nothing was underground. They were always in well-located buildings, in residential neighborhoods, people knew what was going on there. This line of argument always repeated that it was ‘an isolated conduct of an agent or a group of agents that is rejected by the corporation as a whole or by the officers’, this is not true,” she explained. “The Army created DOI-CODI for that purpose. It promoted training, brought together people from all the police forces. One cannot say that they did not know what was happening there, there is no such possibility.”

Emblems of dictatorship

The inspiration for the creation of DOI-CODI, according to Neves, “came from the French experience in the Algerian War, the interrogation and torture methods came from there, and from the U.S. experience in the national security doctrine, which treated Brazilians as enemies of their own country.”

Another participant in the research project, Argentine archaeologist Andrés Zarankin, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at UFMG, has conducted research in Argentina and in the building of the former DOPS (Department of Political and Social Order in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais), a Civil Police organ that played the role of political police also monitoring, imprisoning and torturing opponents of the dictatorship.

Together with professor Pedro Paulo Funari, Zarankin proposed the concept of an “Archeology of Repression and Resistance”, that is, “to analyze, through archeology, the engineering of extermination generated by authoritarian governments in South America during the second half of the 20th century”.

Zarankin explained that it is not possible to know exactly what the archaeological study will find during the research at the building of the extinct DOI-CODI in São Paulo, because “archaeology is, in a certain sense, like fishing.”

“Today there is a distortion, an attempt to change history, to create a fictitious story of how ‘the dictatorship was a positive thing for the world and the country’. These are discourses about the past that try to legitimize it. Like ‘democracy came from dictatorship’. That’s why the disciplines that work with the past are important, [to explain] that dictatorships, not only the Brazilian one, are integral with death, with torture, with the destruction of political dissent.”


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