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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Controversy Surrounds Army Search for Guerrilla Remains

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 17 2009 (IPS) - The armed forces of Brazil will begin to search for the remains of guerrilla fighters who were forcibly disappeared in Araguaia, a remote area in the northern jungle state of Pará during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, reviving an old debate on the role played by the army in that area.

The Defence Ministry reported that the excavation work, set to begin in August, is aimed at finding the bodies of some 60 members of an insurgent movement known simply as the Araguaia guerrillas, created by members of the Brazilian Communist Party.

Thousands of army troops were sent into the area to hunt down the rebels, who disappeared between 1972 and 1975 – the harshest period of the dictatorship – in circumstances that have yet to be clarified.

According to an army communiqué, the joint military-civilian team will search for the bodies in four different isolated Amazon jungle areas in the states of Pará and Tocantins.

Although the official army version has always been that the guerrillas died in combat, other accounts, recently confirmed by a retired major who was personally involved in the counterinsurgency operation, indicate that they were executed after they surrendered or were captured.

The special 33-member working group set up to lead the effort to locate and identify the remains of the guerrillas consists of military officers, representatives of the ministries of justice, defence and technology and of the federal police, forensic experts, geologists and independent observers.

The operation was launched by the defence ministry in compliance with a court order issued in 2003, which required the state to return the bodies of the guerrillas to their families.

The excavation and exhumations are to take place from August to November, after which forensic experts will attempt to identify the bodies.

The families of the victims complain that the operation is being carried out by the army itself, which allegedly tortured and killed not only guerrillas but also local peasant farmers accused of sympathising with their cause.

In June, the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva formally apologised to farmers who were tortured and whose farms and crops were destroyed by the counterinsurgency troops in their effort to eliminate the Araguaia guerrillas.

Justice Minister Tarso Genro said 44 farmers would receive reparations of around 70,000 dollars as well as a lifetime pension equivalent to two monthly minimum wages.

Victoria Grabois, a sister, widow and daughter of members of the Araguaia guerrillas, told IPS that “It is emotionally impossible for us to participate with the army in the excavations to find our loved ones.”

Grabois, a member of the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (No More Torture Group), said the decision to resume the search was prompted by the fact that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has asked the government to present explanations on the location of the remains of the victims and the circumstances of their deaths in early 2010.

The activist complained about the way the endeavour is being carried out. “It’s basically being organised like a war operation, commanded by a general from an army brigade that operated in the jungle, where the military went to kill guerrillas,” complained Grabois.

The president of Tortura Nunca Mais, Cecilia Coimbra, called the operation “a farce.”

She told IPS that it has failed to take into account the large body of reports and personal accounts compiled by human rights organisations, forensic experts and victims’ relatives who have been visiting the region to investigate since the 1980s.

Coimbra also pointed out that “General Brandão, head of the army information services,” was present at a Jun. 3 meeting with Defence Minister Nelson Azevedo Jobim held to report on the creation of the Araguaia working group, and said the general’s presence was aimed at “inhibiting the victims’ families who took part in the meeting.”

Jobim said the decision to include the army was based on the need for logistical support.

And although the defence minister named civilians to head the mission, Grabois said they are advisers to the defence ministry.

General Mário Lúcio Alves de Araújo, whose involvement in the operation is criticised by the victims’ families, is now head of the logistics support team rather than the entire mission, as had been originally established.

Minister Jobim said locating and identifying the bodies of the victims of forced disappearance is a priority, in order to close the chapter of the rights abuses committed by the dictatorship and put an end to what he called the “revanchist attitudes” of some political sectors.

However, human rights groups point out that the 1979 amnesty that blocked prosecutions of members of the Brazilian military who committed human rights crimes have made it impossible to clarify dictatorship-era abuses, as other countries like Argentina and Chile have begun to do.

Tortura Nunca Mais is demanding that the operation be headed by representatives of the victims’ families and of the Special Secretariat for Human Rights, which is under the president’s office.

It is also calling for compliance with court rulings and legislation ordering the military to open up the dictatorship’s archives in order to clarify these and other cases of forced disappearance, murder and torture.

Calls for access to the archives were renewed after a retired army officer involved in the counterinsurgency effort against the Araguaia guerrillas revealed to the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper in June a list of 41 insurgents who were executed after they were arrested.

The version of events provided by retired army major Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura, known as “Sebastião Curió”, which was backed up by supposedly personal documents, described the executions in detail, further confirming claims by the victims’ families that documents on the military repression exist.

Moreover, his testimony apparently refutes one of the military’s central arguments: that the guerrillas were armed and ready to open fire when they were shot down.

“We had orders not to leave the jungle until we killed every last guerrilla,” Curió told the newspaper, expressing no repentance for the tactics that he said were necessary “to fight the communist guerrillas and protect the sovereignty and integrity of the fatherland.”

He also provided information on the number of guerrillas, saying the group was made up of 78 armed combatants from different cities as well as 20 local small farmers who had been recruited, and that it had 158 people who provided logistical support.

A document addressed to the government by Tortura Nunca Mais and other human rights groups and organisations of families of victims of politically motivated murders or disappearance states that “We are terrified by the dispatch of an essentially military mission, without the presence of victims’ relatives and without the participation of the Special Commission on Those Who Died and Disappeared for Political Reasons (CEMDP, set up by the government) or the Special Secretariat on Human Rights.”

The activists underline that in a March interview, General Araújo justified the military repression when he said that “exactly 44 years ago, the Brazilian army, in response to the people’s clamour, took to the streets contributing in a substantial and positive manner to keeping Brazil from becoming a communist country.”

Tortura Nunca Mais believes the army’s role in this case should be limited to providing information contained in its archives, “which should already be available to all Brazilians.”

The position taken by the families and activists was backed up by two federal prosecutors in Pará, who announced this week that they would seek a suspension of the search for the guerrillas’ remains.

Prosecutors Tiago Rabelo and André Raupp criticised the commission for failing to include representatives of the victims’ families and the attorney general’s office, and complained about the army’s lack of transparency, which “could generate distrust and suspicion on the part of the guerrillas’ families, human rights groups and civil society as a whole.”

President Lula’s human rights secretary Paulo Vannuchi called for the creation of a commission of representatives of the victims’ families to oversee and monitor the operation.

Another element has now been added to the controversy over Araguaia.

Businesswoman Maria Mercês Castro, the sister of Antônio Teodoro de Castro – who was on the list of 41 guerrillas killed by the army, presented by Curió – recently revealed that the dictatorship kidnapped at least three children during the period that the Araguaia guerrillas were active.

Castro’s allegations were based on the testimony of small farmers in the region who said the guerrillas had eight children, including the three who were supposedly taken away by the army.

Coimbra said she had heard the “rumour” that some of the guerrillas had had children in the jungle, but that Tortura Nunca Mais had no information on supposed kidnappings of children. “That is another aspect to be investigated, because it would be important for those children, who would now be adults, to know about their past,” she said.

The first steps towards seeking the remains of the Araguaia guerrillas were taken in 1991. But the government got involved in the process five years later, when the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team also took part.

So far the remains of only two people have been identified, those of Maria Lúcia Petit and Bergson Farias, but there are 10 other bodies already found and awaiting identification.

A December 1995 law declared that the victims of forced disappearance were legally dead and had been killed “because they participated, or were accused of participating, in political activities” between September 1961 and August 1979.

With that law, the state acknowledged its responsibility for the forced disappearance of 136 people.

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