The Missing in Brazil: the impacts of very long awaited acknowledgement

On December 10th 2014, Brazil’s National Truth Commission (CNV) – established in May 2012, with the aim of investigating grave human rights violations that occurred between 1946 and 1988 – officially delivered its final report. The dates selected by the CNV for this report correspond to two renewed national Constitutions, and also comprise the period of the military coup d’Etat and the consequent dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985*.

One of the CNV’s main aims relates to the “duty of memory”, including the memory of those subjected to enforced disappearance, with the aim of encouraging “national reconciliation”. This process of looking back at its past and seeking “truth and reconciliation” in Brazil has taken much more time than it might take in other countries. In 2014, Brazil commemorates 50 years since the coup d’Etat and the beginning of the dictatorship period and almost 30 since it ended.

The CNV was able to establish that arbitrary imprisonment of persons considered “subversives” or “enemies of the State”, as well as torture and enforced disappearances were not isolated cases, or did not exist at the margins of the dictatorship, as often alleged by the military. The CNV even dressed a list of official structures used by military forces to detain and “interrogate” people (which often included the use of violence and torture), as represented below.

detention places BR

Places of human rights violations during the dictatorship – As listed by the National Truth Commission, map elaborated by G1.

Furthermore, the CNV also established a list of 434 killed and disappeared, of those: i) 191 were assassinated; ii) 210 continue to be considered disappeared; iii) and 33 were considered disappeared by an initial list assembled by the Ministry of Justice, but the bodies were declared found. These figures are much lower than those reported in countries such as Argentina (more than 30,000) or Chile (over 3,000) related to their respective dictatorship periods; however, they do not necessarily imply a lower level of violence used by State agents (in all of its possible forms) and the consequent state of terror generated in Brazil. The Brazilian figures might also partly reflect the limits imposed to the CNV’s work and the time lapse between the events and the actual investigations.

Members of the CNV interviewed over a thousand people connected to the list of disappeared provided by the Ministry of Justice, containing some 400 cases, but the CNV’s investigation remained centered on those cases. CNV members also admitted that the real figures of killed and disappeared are probably higher, as for instance, they had reported difficulties in accessing military archives of that period officially declared as “destroyed” or “nonexistent”. Those archives are not only military but national archives, as the military controlled all administrative activities in Brazil during the dictatorship period. These archives could potentially be the source to reveal and confirm many other cases of disappearance.

An additional aspect to the uncertainty of the figures is that an unknown number of families were forced to resort to exile during the military regime, to avoid further persecution. Some of those exiled may have never returned to claim clarifications, while others that did return never trusted State authorities again.

Some of the important impacts of the considerable time lapse between the perpetration of these crimes and the formal acknowledgement and investigation are:

➢ Part of the family members of the disappeared that could have useful information to establish the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared, as perpetrators or witnesses may have already passed away.

➢ For many years, families of the missing and victims of State violence had restricted access to any kind of support or reparations, including psychosocial support. There are even some well-known cases of people who resorted to suicide after enduring years of brutality imposed on them and their families.

➢ Due to the 1979 Amnesty law, none of the perpetrators in the military or the police forces responded criminally for their acts. As a consequence, a culture that somehow “allows” the arbitrary use of force remained in those institutions. This culture is reflected in the prison cell torture and disappearances that continue to take place in Brazil. Recently, during state efforts to pacify protests prior to the 2014 World Cup, the police arrested a man named Amarildo, “for investigation” purposes. He was suspected of drug trafficking by the police. He was a construction worker who likely had nothing to do with organized crime. Nevertheless, he never returned home and his family’s plight generated national attention demanding answers from the police. Amarildo’s is one of the rare cases currently under investigation. So far, there is significant evidence that he was tortured and executed, but his body has not been found. He remains, as many other Brazilians, disappeared.

While the process of establishing facts surrounding disappearances has been slow and imperfect, the CNV’s list of 434 killed and disappeared, and report and recommendations – such as considering that perpetrators should legally respond for their crimes, despite the Amnesty law, or the creation of mechanisms to fight and prevent future torture – represent a step forward and encourages debate for the implementation of further constructive measures.

* The Brazilian dictatorship period had five different presidents, all military representatives, appointed by members of the government. Soon after the first military president assumed the position, it was imposed the end of political parties in the country and the president was granted the power of depriving people from political rights, which prevented any representation of political opposition to formally take place.