Torture training in Brazil


My history includes a two year period in Brazil during the days of the military dictatorship. At first, I was working at the University of Brasilia as a chaplain and teacher. In 1968, the military arrested many students, murdered others and invaded the university using equipment clearly marked US Army and USA. At the end, I was working, in São Paulo for a group doing literacy training, sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Among my friends were two Dominican priests who were arrested by the political police, taken to the sixth floor of the police building and thrown out of the window. The story told by the police was that they committed suicide. Of course suicide is a mortal sin for Roman Catholics. I knew these priests intimately and there was no way they would have done this. It was a patent attempt to discredit the Dominican order who were working for the betterment of the poor and were critical of the military government.

Another of my friends and colleagues was a young woman who was taken from the street outside our office. Two weeks later, she was thrown from a panel truck onto the sidewalk. She crawled into the office and was nursed by some of the other women. Cecilia had been tortured, raped, had electric shocks to various parts of her body. Her breast nipples were ripped by pliers. She was held naked in a “cold cell.” Eventually she was returned when the military torturers realized that she really had no information to give them.

It was not long after that I was asked to leave Brazil.

What I learned was that while most of the torture was undertaken by Brazilians, the US had trainers teaching torture methods and some of the torture equipment was made in Texas and Louisiana.

One famous case was that of Dan Mitrione, working for the US Agency for International Development, teaching refinements in torture techniques to Brazilian and Uruguayan interrogators. Mitrione was ultimately kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerillas and executed, becoming the subject of Costa Gavras’ movie State of Siege.  The CIA mounted major cover-up operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having said to his students: “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.”

A recent discussion of torture in Iraq and elsewhere brought me back to this story, which was written and published originally in the LA Times but now found at The Center for Research on Globalization.

Brazil has made light-years of change and is now a very successful democracy. It does have problems, but is making great strides in conquering literacy, economic instability, health care and other needs. Iraq suggests that the US has not made the needed changes, at least in regard to torture.

U.S. has a 45-year history of torture

by A.J. Langguth

Global Research, May 5, 2009
L.A. Times – 2009-05-03
As President Obama grapples with accusations of torture by U.S. agents, I suggest he consult the former Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle.

I first contacted Daschle in 1975, when he was an aide to Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota, who was leading a somewhat lonely campaign against CIA abuses.

At the time, I was researching a book on the United States’ role in the spread of military dictatorships throughout Latin America. Daschle arranged for me to inspect the senator’s files, and I spent an evening reading accounts of U.S. complicity in torture. The stories came from Iran, Taiwan, Greece and, for the preceding 10 years, from Brazil and the rest of the continent’s Southern Cone.

Despite my past reporting from South Vietnam, I had been naive enough to be at first surprised and then appalled by the degree to which our country had helped to overthrow elected governments in Latin America.

Our interference, which went on for decades, was not limited to one political party. The meddling in Brazil began in earnest during the early 1960s under a Democratic administration. At that time, Washington’s alarm over Cuba was much like the more recent panic after 9/11. The Kennedy White House was determined to prevent another communist regime in the hemisphere, and Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, was taking a strong interest in several anti-communist approaches, including the Office of Public Safety.

When OPS was launched under President Eisenhower, its mission sounded benign enough — to increase the professionalism of the police of Asia, Africa and, particularly, Latin America. But its genial director, Byron Engle, was a CIA agent, and his program was part of a wider effort to identify receptive recruits among local populations.

Although Engle wanted to avoid having his unit exposed as a CIA front, in the public mind the separation was quickly blurred. Dan Mitrione, for example, a police advisor murdered by Uruguay’s left-wing Tupamaros for his role in torture in that country, was widely assumed to be a CIA agent.

When Brazil seemed to tilt leftward after President Joao Goulart assumed power in 1961, the Kennedy administration grew increasingly troubled. Robert Kennedy traveled to Brazil to tell Goulart he should dismiss two of his Cabinet members, and the office of Lincoln Gordon, John Kennedy’s ambassador to Brazil, became the hub for CIA efforts to destabilize Goulart’s government.

On March 31, 1964, encouraged by U.S. military attache Vernon Walters, Brazilian Gen. Humberto Castelo Branco rose up against Goulart. Rather than set off a civil war, Goulart chose exile in Montevideo.

Ambassador Gordon returned to a jubilant Washington, where he ran into Robert Kennedy, who was still grieving for his brother, assassinated the previous November. “Well, he got what was coming to him,” Kennedy said of Goulart. “Too bad he didn’t follow the advice we gave him when we were down there.”

The Brazilian people did not deserve what they got. The military cracked down harshly on labor unions, newspapers and student associations. The newly efficient police, drawing on training provided by the U.S., began routinely torturing political prisoners and even opened a torture school on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to teach police sergeants how to inflict the maximum pain without killing their victims.

One torture victim was Fernando Gabeira, a young reporter for Jornal do Brasil who was recruited by a resistance movement and later arrested for his role in the 1969 kidnapping of Charles Burke Elbrick, the U.S. ambassador. (Elbrick was released after four days.) In custody, Gabeira later told me, he was tortured with electric shocks to his testicles; a fellow prisoner had his testicles nailed to a table. Still others were beaten bloody or waterboarded. When Gabeira’s captors said anything at all, they sometimes boasted about having been trained in the United States.

During the first seven years after Castelo Branco’s coup, the OPS trained 100,000 Brazilian police, including 600 who were brought to the United States. Their instruction varied. Some OPS lecturers denounced torture as inhumane and ineffectual. Others conveyed a different message. Le Van An, a student from the South Vietnamese police, later described what his instructors told him: “Despite the fact that brutal interrogation is strongly criticized by moralists,” they said, “its importance must not be denied if we want to have order and security in daily life.”

Brazil’s political prisoners never doubted that Americans were involved in the torture that proliferated in their country. On their release, they reported that they frequently had heard English-speaking men around them, foreigners who left the room while the actual torture took place. As the years passed, those torture victims say, the men with American accents became less careful and sometimes stayed on during interrogations.

One student dissident, Angela Camargo Seixas, described to me how she was beaten and had electric wires inserted into her vagina after her arrest. During her interrogations, she found that her hatred was directed less toward her countrymen than toward the North Americans. She vowed never to forgive the United States for training and equipping the Brazilian police.

Flavio Tavares Freitas, a journalist and Christian nationalist, shared that sense of outrage. When he had wires jammed in his ears, between his teeth and into his anus, he saw that the small gray generator producing the shocks had on its side the red, white and blue shield of the USAID.

Still another student leader, Jean Marc Von der Weid, told of having his penis wrapped in wires and connected to a battery-operated field telephone. Von der Weid, who had been in Brazil’s marine reserve, said he recognized the telephone as one supplied by the United States through its military assistance program.

Victims often said that their one moment of hope came when a medical doctor appeared in their cell. Now surely the torment would end. Then they found that he was only there to guarantee that they could survive another round of shocks.

CIA Director Richard Helms once tried to rebut accusations against his agency by asserting that the nation must take it on faith that the CIA was made up of “honorable men.” That was before Sen. Frank Church’s 1975 Senate hearings brought to light CIA behavior that was deeply dishonorable.

Before Brazil restored civilian government in 1985, Abourezk had managed to shut down a Texas training base notorious for teaching subversive techniques, including the making of bombs. When OPS came under attack during another flurry of bad publicity, the CIA did not fight to save it, and its funding was cut off.

Looking back, what has changed since 1975? A Brazilian truth and reconciliation commission was convened, and it documented 339 cases of government-sanctioned political assassinations. In 2002, a former labor leader and political prisoner, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was elected president of Brazil. He’s serving his second term.

Fernando Gabeira went home to publish a book about kidnapping the American ambassador and his ordeal in prison. The book became a bestseller throughout Brazil, and Gabeira was elected to the national legislature. In an election last October, he came within 1.4 percentage points of becoming the mayor of Rio de Janeiro.

But in our country, there’s been a disheartening development: In 1975, U.S. officials still felt they had to deny condoning torture. Now many of them seem to be defending torture, even boasting about it.

A.J. Langguth is the author of “Hidden Terrors: The Truth About U.S. Police Operations in Latin America.”

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6 Comments

  1. Carla Penna
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    David
    Your report is touching and is very important for the young generations all over the world. People must understand that human rights and freedom are universal
    Thank you Carla Penna from Brazil

  2. Alex
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

    ” the OPS trained 100,000 Brazilian police, including 600 who were brought to the United States.”

    This is absurd Brazil never had 100.000 policemen at the time. lol.

    • Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink | Reply

      Whether police or military, the Brazilians did have more than 100,000, not including the Esquadrao de Morte groups. There was the specialized political police called DOPS (political police), the SNI (National Intelligence Service) as well as the regular military. There was a regular regime of state sponsored terror and torture.

      I have the “pleasure” of returning from Brazil and carrying secreted on my person, a microfilm of affidavits naming U.S. CIA and military torture trainers. My friend Jaime Wright, one of my heroes, and the then Catholic bishop of Sao Paulo were able to obtain more than 2700 pages of testimony by political prisoners documenting almost 300 forms of torture. This was published by the World Council of Churches as Brasil: Nunca Mais. Some of that testimony included more names of torture trainers.

      Some of the electrical torture equipment was made in Louisiana, in a factory owned and operated by a US company but sold directly to the US Army and CIA.

      My personal knowledge is that I was teaching at the University of Brasilia when the Brazilian army invaded the campus in 1968, killing student leaders and imprisoning others. Much of the equipment that the Brazilians were using was still marked “U.S. Army.” At the urging of Brazilian professors, I was able to hide two of the students for whom the military had death orders.

      I was later associated with a literacy training group sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Two of our group, Dominican priests, were imprisoned, tortured and ultimately thrown from roof of the DOPS. Another of our group was a young woman who was taken and tortured, raped, had her breasts torn with pliers and after three weeks thrown out of a truck in front of our office ins Sao Paulo.

      So whether 700, or 600, or only 500 were brought to the US for training, there is no doubt that this happened.

  3. Renee Bouvier
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The United States is now torturing its own citizens by deliberately withholding medical treatment to the severely infirm. The Social Security Administration is set up to deliberately deny benefits or offer meager benefits to the most severely infirm. The SSA boasts about having the largest court system with the most amount of judges and involved lawyers in the world. The SSA is deliberately equipped to act as a state within a state, where it can violate the rule of law with impunity in denying an infirm person’s basic civil liberties and constitutional rights. The SSA court system is geared toward subsidizing an inflated body of law school graduates rather than accomodating the infirm and the disabled. Doctors should be the professionals to determine the degree and type of infirmity — not a prosaic lawyer, who is nothing more than a debt collector. The private group practices of doctors today are experiencing financial duress, some breaking even to cover operational expenses, where doctors are no longer able to take a salary — doctors, who are retired professors of medicine from a first-tier university hospital. More often than not, many doctors are either closing or selling their group practices, finding it financially impossible to practice the art of medicine. Those patients, who are severely infirm, and must be treated at a first-tier university hospital facility are being denied treatment by the SSA. The corporate entities hired by the U.S. government are deliberately withholding all treatment from the most severely infirm, including vital pharmaceuticals on which the patient has depended for over a decade. There are now medical doctors employed full-time by these private insurance corporate entities, who are deliberately denying the most infirm patients of their medications. What does that say about the U.S. and Americans?

    • Posted March 23, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink | Reply

      While I have not investigated the SSA situation, I have no doubt of what you say.

      For the more general issue of the status of health care in the US, folks can go to http://www.healthcareforall.org/ . While this organization is specific to California, the issue is not and there are similar organizations in most states. Health care costs in the US are almost double what they are in European countries–and Japan–where there is universal coverage. However, our overall health care result is about 12th (10-16th depending which survey.) and maternal as well as infant mortality rates are higher than 29 other countries.

  4. Ann
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 12:29 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thank you for bringing to light the horrendous nature of what Brazil did to its own people, and the U.S.’s role in it. It’s a shame that the dictatorship lasted so long and the transition to democracy was so obstructed by those eager to sweep their abuses under the rug (via the ridiculous Amnesty Law) that many younger Brazilians have no idea of the scope of the human rights abuses. Worse, many older ones know and don’t care. It’s an apathy even scholars are trying to understand. Again, thank you for bringing this to light.

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