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Brazil: Geisel authorized targeted killings

A CIA document reveals how the president authorized targeted killings during the military dictatorship


In the last two weeks the Brazilian scholar Matias Spektor of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas has brought to light documents which take us back to the dark depths of the country’s military regime which governed from 1964 to 1984. Matias Spektor comments on the discovery of the CIA documents. Interview by Pedro Bial, Video: Fatos Incríveis Jair Bolsonaro defends Reserve General Antonio Hamilton Mourão, who spoke of ‘military intervention’, criticised the military policing of Rio as a ‘weak military intervention’, and is a fan of Col.Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, in charge of torture during the 1970s military dictatorship. Video: Portal da Direita The documents, should serve as a reminder and a warning at a time when a leading candidate in this year’s Presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro, openly proclaims his approval of the military regime and states his intention of instituting a fiercely repressive state if he is elected. They reveal that under the Presidencies of Garrastazu Medici (1968-74) and Geisel (1974-80) the army’s ‘Information Centre’ (CIE) carried out a policy of targeted assassinations against people they labelled subversives. The evidence has been publicly available since a minute, dated 11 April 1974 of a meeting between the then head of the CIA and Henry Kissinger (at the time Secretary of State), was declassified in 2015, but it has only now been unearthed by Spektor. Evidently, the CIA had an informer at the top of the Brazilian state at the time, for it took less than two weeks for a meeting of Brazil’s new president and its most senior generals to be reported in detail to Kissinger.

Kissinger pulled the strings

Kissinger wanted to bring Geisel close to the US – though when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 relations cooled and arms sales stopped on account of human rights abuses in Brazil.  
Ernesto Geisel Photo: Governo do Brasil – Galeria de Presidentes, Public Domain
Kissinger wanted to bring Geisel close to the US – though when Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 relations cooled and arms sales stopped on account of human rights abuses in Brazil.   In 1974, Geisel took over as president and shortly afterwards the head of the country’s all-powerful National Intelligence Service (SNI), General Figueiredo, informed him that 104 targeted assassinations had taken place in the previous year alone. Figueiredo now asked for authorization to continue. After a weekend of reflection, Geisel decided that they could continue, but only targeting ‘dangerous subversives’ and only with authorization of the head of the SNI himself. 89 people were killed, many by torture, as a result of this decision, among them chemistry professor Ana Rosa Kucinski and her husband Wilson Silva: Ana Rosa’s disappearance and her father’s despairing search for her inspired the novel K, by her brother Bernardo Kucinski, translated by Sue Branford and published by the Latin American Bureau (2012).
LAB book ‘K’. Available from
A year and a half later, in October 1975, the torture and killing of the journalist Vladimir Herzog in a military barracks in São Paulo caused a public outcry far in excess of other killings, and Geisel fired the General in Command of the Second Army, giving rise to his reputation as the architect of the country’s tortuous transition to civilian rule ten years later – a reputation now badly tarnished as a result of Spektor’s discovery.

Impunity for torturers

These revelations also bring back to the fore the impunity of all the senior Generals who governed Brazil at this time. Indeed, the Amnesty Law decreed by Figueiredo himself, Geisel’s successor, before he left office in 1985, conferring on the military immunity from judicial proceedings (i.e. impunity), included a self-amnesty since he himself had authorized the killings as head of the SNI. Some lower level officers have been convicted.  The current Minister of Security avoided making any substantive comment, but last week his Secretary General, General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, instead of dealing with the issue, insinuated, in yet another belittling of the crimes of the past, that the revelations might be motivated by a political purpose, namely to hurt the many retired military officers standing in the forthcoming elections. The military stated some time ago that ‘in accordance with practices in force at that time’, the documentation of the period had been destroyed. The CNV (National Truth Commission) established by President Dilma Rousseff more than twenty years after the return to civilian rule, conducted extensive public hearings throughout Brazil and published a monumental report in 2014, listing the names of 420 people who had died or been made to disappear for political reasons between April 1st 1964 and 1988. According to the journalist Luiz Claudio Cunha, who has devoted his life to researching the dictatorship, in the 21 years of dictatorship:
  • 500,000 citizens were investigated by security agencies;
  • 200,000 arrested on suspicion of subversion (of whom 50,000 were imprisoned between March and August 1964, with 1,792  tried for ‘political crimes’ by the Military Courts under the National Security Law);
  • 10,000 were tortured by the notorious and secret DOI-CODI unit;
  • 10,000 Brazilians were forced into exile;
  • 4,862 elected officials. from presidents to local municipal councillors, were removed and deprived of their political rights.
Dima Rousseff herself, as is well known, was also a victim of torture, having been held for 22 days by the same DOI-CODI in 1970 on account of her involvement with a group (VAR-Palmares) which undertook, or tried to undertake, armed revolution. Dilma never committed any act of violence herself. Even while she was president and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the Armed Forces themselves, presented with abundant evidence by the Truth Commission, denied everything – even the torture suffered by the then President. This despite the fact that hundreds of victims of the repression had been receiving indemnities on account of the violation of their human rights ever since the 1990s.

Lest we forget…

Societies forget too easily, and sometimes barely begin to remember. If the German state had not undertaken strenuous efforts after the war,  the Nazis would have passed into a laundered version of the country’s history, which is what happened in Austria where there was no denazification, and where today the extreme right Freedom Party, heir to Nazi apologists, is a partner in the government, in charge of foreign, interior and defence ministries. In Chile still today a candidate who expressed enthusiastic support for Pinochet got 8 per cent of the vote in the 2017 elections; in Peru a pardon was recently granted to the former authoritarian President Fujimori by President Kuczynski  – who then had himself to resign because of the scandalous circumstances of the pardon.  (Those crimes were committed during a 16-year civil war in which massacres and abuses were perpetrated both by the security forces and, to an even greater extent, by the Shining Path guerrilla forces.), Argentina is the only country where hardly anyone dares to speak in defence of the military dictators who ruled from 1976 till the 1982 Falklands War.  Although Uruguay never established an official Truth Commission, in 2010 the voters did elect as President the former Tupamaro leader José Mujica who had spent 15 years in prison, much of that in solitary confinement.
Sources: The CIA document is reproduced here:

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David Lehmann's Blog

David Lehmann is a senior editor at LAB. A social scientist who has worked all his life on and in Latin America, he writes on subjects including agricultural development, religion and multiculturalism. He has worked in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil and has accumulated a wide-ranging knowledge of peoples, histories and ideas over several decades. He is a former director of the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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