Long After Guerrilla War, Survivors Demand Justice From Brazil's Government
By LARRY ROHTER
XAMBIOÁ, Brazil — At the cemetery here, a half dozen bodies once secretly buried have been unearthed. More skeletons have been recovered from an Indian reservation just to the north. Somewhere out in the jungle lie the remains of 50 or so others, whose relatives are now belatedly demanding justice.
The dead were victims of a guerrilla war against Communist insurgents fought largely in secret in this remote southeast corner of the Amazon from 1970 to 1974, the harshest years of Brazil's military rule.
When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office more than a year ago as the country's first president from the left-wing Workers' Party, many presumed that he would be sympathetic to helping relatives of the dead locate the bodies of loved ones and bring those responsible for their torture and killing to justice.
In neighboring Argentina and Chile, aggressive efforts are under way to address much more widespread abuses under similar dictatorships. But Mr. da Silva's government, like other Brazilian governments for 30 years, has so far resisted a full accounting of the episode, one of the darkest and most divisive in this nation's past, for fear of opening old wounds.
"This is not going to be done in a manner that creates a big national political crisis," Nilmário Miranda, the government's human rights secretary, said in response to growing accusations of betrayal and moral cowardice. "It has to be negotiated."
All told, the Brazilian Armed Forces deployed more than 10,000 soldiers in this rugged region where the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers converge. What became known as the Araguaia guerrilla war ended only after more than 60 combatants from the Communist Party of Brazil, hoping to carve out a Maoist "liberated zone" in the Amazon, were hunted down and executed. Some were beheaded, and many were killed after surrendering to troops and being tortured.
As many as a score of local peasants, caught in the cross-fire and under pressure from both sides to collaborate, are also believed to have been killed, according to residents and human rights groups. Hundreds more were displaced.
To this day, those villagers remain uncompensated and barred from returning to their small farms, which the military summarily expropriated or bombed with napalm three decades ago.
That the military carried out a deliberate policy of exterminating the rebels, thereby sweeping up many local peasants as well, is supported in a new best-selling book, "The Dictatorship Defeated," which has renewed interest in the conflict.
The author, Elio Gaspari, gained access to official audiotapes recorded by Gen. Ernesto Geisel, Brazil's president from 1974 to 1979, in which top military leaders spoke uninhibitedly about their decision not to capture the guerrillas and put them on trial, but to eliminate them.
"This business of killing people is a barbarity, but I think it has to be done," General Geisel said during one discussion early in 1974 with his soon-to-be minister of the army. "We can't let go of this war."
Before leaving office, the general arranged an amnesty that applied to the leftist guerrillas and exiles and also the military and police officers who had tortured or killed them.
But in July, a federal judge ordered the military to supply relatives with information on how the guerrillas and peasants had died and where they were buried. The Workers' Party government immediately sought to block enforcement of the decree, surprising human rights advocates.
The decision was interpreted here as an effort to cement relations with a military establishment that traditionally viewed the Workers' Party as radicals, and it generated deep anguish within the party itself. Some crucial party leaders saw it as a betrayal of principles. A few have gone public with their discontent.
"This is an open wound between us," Eduardo Greenhalgh, a member of Congress who was Mr. da Silva's lawyer when the president was a labor leader, said in a speech to the national bar association late last year. "I felt a deep pain when the president, who is my friend, comrade and former client, decided, for reasons of state that I fail to comprehend, to appeal a ruling I had spent 21 years of my life trying to win."
To hold off its critics, the government has set up a commission to investigate how the guerrillas died and where their bodies were buried. But that board excludes family members and other nongovernment representatives and has no mandate to punish those responsible for the killings. It has already missed two deadlines to supply information to relatives.
"The creation of this commission serves to protect those who apprehended, killed and disappeared opponents of the dictatorship," Elizabeth Silveira, president of the human rights group Torture Never Again, said in testimony to a congressional committee in the capital, Brasília, last year.
"The government," she added, "is strengthening impunity in our country and is swimming against the tide of history."
One of the leading figures in the negotiations, largely conducted behind closed doors, between the Workers' Party and the armed forces is José Genoino, the party president, himself a survivor of the war.
"We defend the right of the families to a concrete explanation of where these bodies are and if it is not possible to locate them, what happened to them," he said in an interview. "But what the Workers' Party government will not do is create a political tribunal to judge the behavior of the armed forces during the military dictatorship."
But to human rights advocates and some Workers' Party members, such a response raises another important issue, that of just compensation to residents of the region who also got caught up in the military's scorched-earth policy.
"As unjust as what happened to the guerrillas was, they made a conscious decision to fight and knew what they were doing and what could happen to them," said Miriam Alves, a Workers' Party staff member of the human rights commission of the lower house of the Brazilian Congress.
"But the local population had no choice in the matter, and it was massacred," she added. "The state must redress this situation."
The family of Eduardo Rodrigues dos Santos is among those that suffered the most. It was the family's misfortune to be the neighbor of a group of settlers, later identified as guerrillas, who had arrived from the south, befriended the peasants and offered them medicine and other scarce services.
During one military campaign, Mr. Rodrigues dos Santos recalled, the family was moved to an island in the middle of the Araguaia River. There they watched as Brazilian Air Force planes bombed and strafed their settlement, destroying their home and those of other families.
One day in 1972, two of his sons, Lauro and Sabino, found a strange object on the ground, which they could not know was a grenade. It exploded, blowing off Sabino's head, destroying most of Lauro's left arm and tearing through his torso.
"It was Aug. 16, and we were on our lunch break," recalled Lauro, now 52, the owner of a general store. "I spent four months in the hospital, and the army officers who came to visit me told me it was their grenade and that I'd be taken care of for the rest of my life, with scholarships and disability payments. But I've never received anything."
Mr. Rodrigues dos Santos, now 78, was himself pressed into service as a guide for the army along with his friend Otacilio Alves de Miranda, a local boatman.
"We felt we couldn't say no," Mr. Rodrigues dos Santos explained. Both men say there were tortured in an attempt to pry information from them about the guerrillas.
"I took a real beating when they flew me down there to Brasília for questioning," Mr. Miranda said in an interview at his home in Marabá, near here. "Hour after hour, they would shock my head with electricity and beat me with bludgeons, screaming and yelling at me all the while."
Such brutality was routine, other former guides maintain. Even today, Antônio Alves de Souza said in an interview in Xambioá, a garrison town where the Brazilian Armed Forces had a base, he and his friends bear scars and still suffer nightmares.
"After torturing me with electricity and plunging my head into a water tank until I could no longer breathe, they threw me into a pit of garbage that was filled with snakes and scorpions and held me there for more than a week," he recalled. "When they finally pulled me out for questioning, they removed the head of a man from a burlap bag and asked if I knew him."
After being released, Mr. Miranda, then 33, suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized, and doctors removed a brain tumor that he and his wife, Felicidade, believe resulted from his torture. But when they went to the military seeking compensation, they were turned away.
"For those who died, it is all over, their tribulations have ended,"
Mrs. Miranda said. "But those who survived are still suffering today from
the traumatic consequences of the horrors they were forced to endure."