What Brazil Can Learn from Its Torture Archive

Image courtesy of the San Diego State University Library Special Collections.

Image courtesy of the San Diego State University Library Special Collections.

Before voting began in early October, The Guardian newspaper called the leading candidate in Brazil's presidential election a "pro-torture, pro-gun populist."

During the campaign, Jair Bolsonaro, the candidate, was widely quoted as favoring the use of dictatorial powers to control crime and violence. 

Marvin Ott, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, described Bolsonaro as a politician "speaking warmly of past military dictatorships and promising to give the military free reign to kill criminals."

For a people who suffered thousands of deaths and disappearances under military torture squads between 1964 and 1985, the revival of such discourse is both puzzling and shocking.

Now that Brazil has elected Bolsonaro, whose army career dates back to the time of dictatorship, many fret that the country’s democratic values seem to be in peril.

But a 1985 book, “Brasil Nunca Mais" (Brazil Never Again), offers hope Brazilians will find the will to avoid further political backsliding.  

By revealing a forgotten, secret history of torture, the book reminds Brazilians of the frightful cost in lives and human values they suffered during the dictatorship. 

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Brazil Never Again emerged from what can only be called a remarkable feat of legal espionage.

In 1979, Brazilian human rights advocates began secretly copying torture files from the underground Supreme Military Tribunal in Brasilia. They gained entry as defense attorneys preparing appeals.

These young lawyers explained their purpose to Paulo Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo, who was helping finance their undercover task.

"They said (they wanted) only to have a history of what happened in Brazil from documents, real documents," Arns told me in a 1990 interview. "So that you could say it was written by them, a history written by the torturers."

Covering 707 cases involving more than 7,000 people, the book used stark language drawn from military courtroom files:

"...the police officer touched her breasts, and with scissors in hand threatened to cut them off..." 

"...they made me lie down naked and hooded on a mattress, tied my legs and arms together..."

"...the right ear drum of the defendant perforated by slaps over the ears..."

 "...I was beaten by three individuals, one of whom was in charge of the electric shock machine..."

Shielded by a 1979 amnesty law imposed by the dictatorship, the torturers escaped punishment.

But the book identified 444 torturers, 1,843 victims, and 283 methods of torture used to inflict pain and coerce false confessions. Its sudden appearance derailed careers and struck a powerful blow for justice that had been denied. 

Brazil Never Again became the country's all-time best-selling book. It sold 225,000 copies in 23 printings.

Cecelia Coimbro was one of the torture victims interviewed by ABC News Nightline in its May 22, 1990, broadcast. A passage from the book was read aloud and the words printed against a black background:

"They took all her clothes off. They put a hood on her head and started giving electric shocks. They put water on the floor to worsen the effect of the electricity."

Coimbro spoke the report's final words:

"These are the periods of history that must not be forgotten," she said. "These are times that must be remembered so that it can never happen again."

To learn more about the John Martin Collection at the San Diego State University Library Special Collections, click here.

John Martin, a public policy research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., served as an ABC News National Correspondent from 1975 to 2002. 
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