Get to Know a Brazilian – João Leonardo da Silva Rocha,

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous entries can be found here.

This week, we look at João Leonardo da Silva Rocha, the sixth of fifteen political prisoners who were exchanged for US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969, in the midst of the most repressive phase of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

João Leonardo da Silva Rocha was born in Salvador, Bahia. While his family moved to Amargosa, a small town near the interior, where he completed his primary schooling, he returned to Salvador to complete his secondary schooling. He then studied at the catholic Seminary of Aracaju in the small neighboring state of Sergipe until 1957. He then went on to work at the Banco do Brasil in the small town of Alagoinhas (also in Bahia), where he also taught Portuguese and Latin. By 1962, João Leonardo relocated to São Paulo, where he continued to work as an employee for Banco do Brasil even while giving classes to workers in the industrial “ABC” area. [The “ABC” region of São Paulo bordered (and eventually bled into) the city of São Paulo, and it was where many of the factories and industrial centers were. It received its name because it was made up of the cities of Santo Andre, São Bernardo, and São Caetano.] Even while teaching, João Leonardo was also a student, enrolling in the Largo de São Francisco Law School, part of the University of São Paulo system, where he also was director for the Student House, a low-cost residence for students at the law school.

With the military regime’s coup in 1964, João Leonardo, building on his experiences living in the impoverished Northeast and in teaching the industrial working class in São Paulo, further radicalized. A part of the Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party, PCB), he ended up being one of the key figures in the PCB’s internal struggles over direction and ideology in the context of military dictatorship.  Ultimately, João Leonardo was one of the early members of the dissident the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action, ALN) that split off from the PCB, one of the numerous lefts emerging in Brazil in the context of military rule.

As a member of the ALN, João Leonardo participated in a number of armed actions, even while he continued teaching. Because of his activity in the urban armed struggle against the regime, the military arrested João Leonardo in January 1969 and charged him with participating in the ALN’s Tactical Armed Group. While they charged him with armed robbery, the military also suspected Leonardo of being involved with the assassination of US Major Charles Chandler. A West Point graduate, Chandler was studying sociology in São Paulo, but armed radical leftist groups in Brazil also believed him to be an operative for the CIA, working with the repressive regime (the CIA and the US had long been attached to Brazil’s military regime, even before the military took power in 1964). Thus, the ALN and the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard selected Chandler as a target in the broader anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorship ideological struggle, killing him as he left home on October 12, 1968. While the military charged Leonardo with involvement in Chandler’s execution, based on evidence gathered in Brazil’s Truth Commission, Leonardo did not seem to be directly involved in the assassination. Nonetheless, his affiliation with the armed made him another target for, and victim of, the military’s use of torture.

Charles Chandler, an army captain studying in Brazil. Brazilian leftist groups believed Chandler to be working with the CIA, and in a symbolic action against both the Brazilian dictatorship and its ties to the US, Chandler was assassinated in 1968.

Charles Chandler, an army captain studying in Brazil. Brazilian leftist groups believed Chandler to be working with the CIA, and in a symbolic action against both the Brazilian dictatorship and its ties to the US, Chandler was assassinated in 1968.

As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo went into exile first in Mexico, before continuing on to Cuba, where most of the fifteen freed political prisoners went. While receiving guerrilla training in Cuba, As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo also became a member of the Movimento de Libertação Popular (Movement of Popular Liberation, MOLIPO), a dissident offshoot of the ALN.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. João Leonardo da Silva Rocha is kneeling on the far left in the first row.

Thirteen of the fifteen political prisoners released into exile in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969. João Leonardo da Silva Rocha is kneeling on the far left in the first row.

As was the case with the other political prisoners released in exchange for US ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969, João Leonardo went into exile first in Mexico, and then on to Cuba with most of the others. While receiving guerrilla training in Cuba, João Leonardo also became a member of the Movimento de Libertação Popular (Movement of Popular Liberation, Molipo), a dissident offshoot of the ALN. While the military regime portrayed its opponents as a single “left,” in reality, there were many “lefts” that split along ideological, tactical, and strategic lines. This resulted in numerous small, leftist groups, ranging from the ALN and the VPR to the Movimento Revolucionário – 8 de Outubro (MR-8) and Molipo, among many others.

João Leonardo was one of the first ex-political prisoners to return to Brazil. In 1971, he settled in São Vicente in the dry interior of the northeastern state of Pernambuco near the border of neighboring state Paraíba. Working as a farmer, João Leonardo shaved his head and adopted the pseudonym of Zé Careca (“Bald Zé,” with Zé being a shortened nickname of “José”). He spent much of 1971 and 1972 trying to establish grassroots support for Molipo in the rural areas of the interior. However, a mixture of limited successes, together with the suspicion that Brazil’s security apparatuses had begun monitoring his activity, João Leonardo relocated to the interior of his native state of Bahia.

Like Onofre Pinto, João Leonardo da Silva Rocha was one of the fifteen who did not live to see the end of the military dictatorship. The military cracked down on Molipo in both Bahia and Goiás, and João Leonardo was one of the few to survive this initial onslaught. However, his luck would run out. In what remain mysterious and unclear circumstances, João Leonardo fell into the hands of the Military Police in Palmas de Monte Alba, Bahia, and the military police extrajudicially executed him for opposing the regime on November 4, 1975. Like Onofre Pinto, the military then secretly disposed of (or destroyed) João Leonardo’s remains. Truth Commission testimony suggests that he was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery, but his remains have yet to be found. Although João Leonardo never had any children, his surviving brother has offered his own DNA so that testing may occur in the event a body is discovered in the cemetery. However, to date, the fate of Although João Leonardo never had any children, his surviving brother has offered his own DNA so that testing may occur in the event a body is discovered in the cemetery. However, to date, the circumstances of João Leonardo’s death, and the location of his body, remain unknown, rendering him not just one of the victims of the military regime, but one of Brazil’s 434 (documented) cases of “disappearance” and, alongside Onofre Pinto, the only two political prisoners freed in 1969 whom the military regime executed and “disappeared.”

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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.
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