On Torture, Crime, and Punishment in Brazil

Last August, progressive senator Cristovam Buarque penned an editorial declaring that “The Whole World Is Mad, But Brazil Has Lost Its Capacity for Indignation.” He’s right, but not for the reasons he suggests. He declares that the failure to mobilize against corruption in Brazil is proof that Brazilians have lost their ability for indignation. While corruption is a not-insignificant issue, it seems that the daily use of torture and violation of human rights against poor Brazilians, especially in favelas, should be the thing that leaves Brazilians indignant. As the 2011 report on Brazil from Human Rights Watch puts it, “torture remains a serious problem”:

The use of torture is a chronic problem within the penitentiary system. A report by the multiparty National Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on the Penitentiary System concluded that the national detention system is plagued by “physical and psychological torture.” In one case from Goias, the Commission received evidence that the National Security Force subjected female detainees to kicks and electric shocks, stepped on the abdomen of a pregnant woman, and forced another woman to strip naked. A 2010 report by the Pastoral Prison Commission found that these problems continue. […]

There were also continued reports of substandard conditions at Rio de Janeiro’s juvenile detention centers run by the General Department of Socio-Educational Measures (DEGASE). In 2010, 44 DEGASE agents were charged with participating in a torture session in 2008 that resulted in the death of one juvenile and left another 20 injured.

This of course is not a major surprise.  The military government of 1964-1985 regularly used torture against thousands of victims, a process that is well-chronicled in the Brazil: Nunca Mais (“Brazil: Never Again) report, translated in English as Torture in Brazil. However, the social practice of torture in Brazil goes back much further; as Thomas Skidmore suggested, torture in the 20th century had its origins in the violence and abuse against slaves during the colonial era. Indeed, the military’s use of the pau de arara, or “parrot’s perch,” drew directly from a mechanism overseers used against slaves.

 A Brazilian overseer whipping a slave in the colonial era… 

...and a portrayal of the similar "parrot's perch," which the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 used in torturing Brazilian citizens.

Just as the military’s use of torture had its roots in colonial slavery, today’s ongoing use of torture, especially in the favelas and in prisons in Brazil, has its roots in the military regime. Unlike Chile and Argentina, Brazil never officially confronted the crimes and legacies of the military regime that murdered and “disappeared” hundreds and tortured thousands. In the particular contexts of Brazilian democratization in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the country opted to “forget” its past and “move on” rather than focus on its authoritarian past. The result was that those who tortured were never punished (or even officially acknowledged). Even the recently-established Brazilian Truth Commission lacks the power to punish, instead only having the authority to investigate and detail the crimes of the military regime, and even then, the military is proving recalcitrant in surrendering documents pertaining to torture and human rights abuse even twenty-seven years after the military regime exited office (and forty-eight years since the 1964 coup that ushered in the 21-year authoritarian regime). All of these factors have combined to set a pattern in which military police could act with impunity in terms of human rights.

Corruption certainly is a problem in Brazil, and it’s certainly not  a question of “either/or” in terms of cracking down on and eliminating corruption and torture. But it speaks volumes that even Buarque claimed that corruption, and not the ongoing use of torture, was what Brazilians should be indignant over, and is another reminder of the ways even progressive leaders in Brazil overlook the use of torture in both the present and the past.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Impunity, Police Violence, Torture. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to On Torture, Crime, and Punishment in Brazil

  1. Pingback: On Torture, Crime, and Punishment in Brazil « Americas South and … : Revista Veja Brasil

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  4. Murilo Otávio Rodrigues Paes Leme blog: zqxjkv0.blogspot.com says:

    I would like to post this text and its translation into Portuguese (I’ve already translated it) on my blog zqxjkv0.blogspot.com – is it possible to send you an email? Thanks
    Murilo

  5. Murilo – that would be fine. You can send an e-mail me to americassouthandnorth@gmail.com.

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