December 1998

An Anniversary
to (not) Forget


"The first thing I used to do was to throw the guy in the middle of a room, take off his clothes and start screaming so he would reveal the meeting place.If he resisted there was a second stage, which was, let's put it this way, more whacks".

Rodolfo Espinoza

It was on Friday 13 of December 1968 that the military dictatorship that took over Brazil from '64 to `85 started its most somber period through the introduction of the infamous Institutional Act No 5, better known as AI-5. It makes sense to call attention to the date charged with superstition when it was recently revealed that it was on superstition grounds that the '64 military coup occurred on March 31.

While some officers thought that middle April would be a better timing, general Carlos Luís Guedes made it clear he didn't want any part of it, and presented a convincing argument: "I never start anything serious when we have crescent moon." The dreaded moon phase was to start on April 2. AI-5's 30th anniversary has produced plenty of reflections, specials and testimonials in the Brazilian media. The measure that closed Congress and suspended all individual rights was signed by then President Marshall Arthur da Costa e Silva and was in force until January 1, 1979.

During the AI-5 the dictatorship developed some of its most creative and cruel forms of torture and the number of disappeared—those secretly killed by the state—multiplied. Among the favorite methods of torture there were the coroa-de-Cristo (Christ's crown) and the pau-de-arara (macaw's stick). Coroa-de-Cristo was a metal hoop attached to the victim's head that kept being pressed by a wicket until it smashed the skull. A Brazilian invention, the pau-de-arara is a monument to the national sadistic impulses. The technique still used nowadays around the country to torture common prisoners consists of a metal bar placed over two wooden horses. The victim is tied to the bar by the wrists or the kneecap. After being immobilized the prisoner used to get hit over the kidney with a broom or receive electrical shocks. Other simpler methods used consisted in introducing a broom stick in the prisoner's anus or throwing cold water on the victim keeping him or her awake for days or simply taking someone in a car to a deserted area and threatening to kill him there.

A Confession

In what is believed to be a first in Brazil, one of the torturers, former lieutenant Marcelo Paixão de Araújo, came forward and gave a lengthy account to weekly magazine Veja (circulation: 1.26 million) about his own participation in the state-sponsored torture rites. The confession, which was the December 9 issue's cover story, presents the portrait of an unrepentant and cold man who doesn't seem ashamed or even disturbed when telling in details the barbaric methods of persuasion he used to obtain confessions by alleged leftist activists.

After revealing that he learned all he knew by watching his colleagues in action, Araújo told the magazine:

"The first thing I used to do was to throw the guy in the middle of a room, take off his clothes and start screaming so he would reveal the ponto (spot, meeting place) and the activists in the group. This was the first stage. If he resisted there was a second stage, which was, let's put it this way, more whacks. One slapped his face. Another applied a blow to his abdomen. A third, a sock to his kidney. All to see if he would talk. If he didn't, there were two routes. It depended a lot on who was applying the torture. I really enjoyed using something to strike their hands. It's very painful, but it makes people talk."

Araújo also talked about some of his other favorite torture methods: the telephone (a device used to apply electrical shocks), the drowning (the individual had his head continually placed under water to the point of almost drowning), and the can dance. "I used the can dance a lot. I took two little pea cans and opened them. After that I would place the guy standing over them." It used to bleed?", the reporter asked. "No, he would talk before that (belly laughs). Lighter people could stand longer."

Why did he do what he did? "The index of utilization is over 90%." Why did he participate as a torturer? "I thought there was the need to destroy the leftist organizations in the country.... I always was viscerally anti-Marxist."

Bottom Line

The year of 1968 showed an increase of action from the opposition and the truculent reaction by the military. On March 28 the police in Rio killed student Édson Luís provoking students street protest across the country. On June 26, Cariocas (from Rio) took to the streets in what would be known as the Passeata dos Cem Mil (The March of the 100,000). That same day a car bomb exploded outside the São Paulo's Army headquarters killing a private. On October 12, the police busted a clandestine meeting of UNE (União Nacional dos Estudantes—Students National Association) in Ibiúna, in the interior of São Paulo state, detaining 1,240 students. It was also in the same day in October that leftist guerrillas killed Charles Chandler, a captain from the American Army.

The military seemed to be looking for a pretext to take the draconian measures they took. On September 3, 1968, Rio representative Márcio Moreira Alves made a speech in Congress accusing the Armed Forces of having become a "refuge of torturers". He even suggested in jest that the wives of military men started a sex strike to show their distaste with the regime. Enraged, President Costa e Silva demanded that Alves be tried by the Supreme Court. On December 12, 1968, however, the House by 216 to 141 votes defeated the government proposal and refused to strip the congressman from his parliamentary immunity.

"They will get their answer. Now they are going to see," said Costa e Silva. The answer, the AI-5 came the next day. Among the measures adopted by the authoritarian act were the temporary closure of Congress, power to annul political rights, intervention in the states and some key cities, media censorship, and suspension of habeas corpus for political prisoners.

During the decade it was in force the AI-5 annulled the political rights of 1,607 citizens, including six senators, 110 House representatives (deputados federais), 161 state assemblymen (deputados estaduais) and 22 mayors. Around 500 movies, 500 songs, 450 plays and 200 books had cuts or were not allowed to be shown in the country during the AI-5 era. The act was also responsible for an unknown number of kidnappings, tortures, disappearances, and assassinations.

Send your
comments to