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Brazil: incinerating bodies in a sugar mill

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Facing up to the past

Brazil has been one of the last countries in Latin America to investigate its past and to face up to the serious human rights abuses that were committed during its military dictatorship (1964-1985). But finally this is changing. President Dilma Rousseff has set up a Truth Commission (although its brief is to uncover the truth, not punish those responsible for human right abuses). And now Claudio Guerra, a former member of Brazil’s secret police, DOPS, has made extraordinary revelations about how the repression operated.

At first, Guerra’s claims, revealed in a recently published book Memórias de uma guerra suja by Marcelo Netto and Rogério Medeiros, seemed so outlandish that few were willing to believe them. It seemed simply inconceivable that, in exchange for financial favours from the military dictatorship, a sugar mill in Rio de Janeiro would have been willing to allow the secret services to use its cauldron to incinerate the corpses of political prisoners that they had killed. And that a prestigious publishing group, like the Folha, would have allowed its delivery vans to be used to kidnap political activists.

However, the initial incredulity is collapsing. Some of the relatives of the 475 people who were killed or disappeared during the military dictatorship have been investigating Guerra’s claims and they say that they do, indeed, confirm what they already know. The incineration of corpses may just be an extreme example of the extraordinary close collaboration between private companies, businessmen and the political repression.

It is also now becoming clear that the revelations are the result of a two year negotiation, involving relatives of the disappeared in the state of Espírito Santo, and that Claudio Guerra has already asked the government for protection. Moreover, the book has been prepared with great care: it was clearly a deliberate decision to have two journalists with very different political views – one (Rogério Medeiros) a progressive, and the other (Marcelo Netto), a former Globo employee and a supporter of the 1964 coup – as authors of the book.

Bernardo Kucinski, a retired university lecturer and journalist, has just read the book. His sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, and brother-in-law, Wilson Campos, were disappeared in 1974. In the book Claudio Guerra says that their bodies, along with those of seven or eight other political prisoners, were incinerated in an immense cauldron in the sugar mill, Usina Cambahyba, located in the district of Campos in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Bernardo KucinskiBernardo Kucinski is the author of a Brazilian bestseller, entitled K., which tells the story of a father’s anguished search for his disappeared daughter. The book is currently being translated by Latin America Bureau (LAB) and will be published in English later this year. Earlier this week Bernardo gave an interview to the Brazilian website, Carta Maior, about Claudio Guerra’s revelations.

Carta Maior: After reading the whole of the book, what is your assessment of the book’s veracity?

Kucinski: The confessions are coherent and don’t contradict the isolated pieces of information that we have. I consider his account to be basically true, although clearly incomplete and perhaps damaged by some false memory, given that it is the account of a person directly involved in the atrocities that he talks about.

CM: Why does a testimony of such importance continue to receive such meagre coverage in the Brazilian press? For instance, it hasn’t been the cover story in any weekly investigative magazine.

Kucinski: For the same reason that we don’t have a slavery museum, we don’t have a national memorial for those killed and disappeared during the military dictatorship, that we still teach in Brazilian schools that the bandeirantes (the early Portuguese colonisers) were heroes. The elite, emerging from the slave society, is still hegemonic.

CM: Of all the information in the book, what do you think is the most significant?

Kucinski: The specific episode I found most significant was the direct participation of the extermination group in the coup organised by the CIA to overthrow the MPLA government in Angola, with the group travelling in a Brazilian Air Force plane.

CM: What new information does he bring about the nature of the repressive structures assembled in the country after the 1964 coup?

Kucinski: It’s clear that the armed forces assembled capture and extermination groups made up of hired killers, leaders of death squads, backers of the jogo do bicho (lottery), smugglers and drug traffickers. They brought these thugs and their methods within the armed forces. These criminals, many of them already convicted by the justice system, were directed and controlled by officers of the armed forces. Carrying out a strategy elaborated by the General Staff, they carried out operations to disappear and liquidate political prisoners; which perhaps explains the barbarity of their actions. I was also struck by the wide-ranging participation of businessmen in the functioning of the repression, important companies like Gasbras, White Martins, Itapemirim, the Folha group – which lent its delivery vans to be used in the kidnapping of political activists – and Sudameris bank, which was the bank of the repression; money from the business communities poured out to finance clandestine operations and to reward criminals with generous payments. It’s all in the book.