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Torture in Brazil

Torture in Brazil
A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments, 1964-1979, Secretly Prepared by the Archiodese of São Paulo
Translated by Jaime Wright; edited with a new preface by Joan Dassin

The English translation of Brasil: Nunca Mais, a catalog of how torture was used in Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
August 1998
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267 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

From 1964 until 1985, Brazil was ruled by a military regime that sanctioned the systematic use of torture in dealing with its political opponents. The catalog of what went on during that grim period was originally published in Portuguese as Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again) in 1985.

The volume was based on the official documentation kept by the very military that perpetrated the horrific acts. These extensive documents include military court proceedings of actual trials, secretly photocopied by lawyers associated with the Catholic Church and analyzed by a team of researchers. Their daring project—known as BNM for Brasil: Nunca Mais—compiled more than 2,700 pages of testimony by political prisoners documenting close to three hundred forms of torture.

The BNM project proves conclusively that torture was an essential part of the military justice system and that judicial authorities were clearly aware of the use of torture to extract confessions. Still, it took more than a decade after the publication of Brasil: Nunca Mais for the armed forces to admit publicly that such torture had ever taken place. Torture in Brazil, the English version of the book re-edited here, serves as a timely reminder of the role of Brazil's military in past repression.


A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

  • Preface to the New Edition
  • Foreword by the Former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches
  • Preface by the Metropolitan Archbishop of São Paulo
  • Introduction to the Brazilian Edition
  • Part 1: Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment
  • 1: Torture Classes: Guinea Pig Prisoners
  • 2: Modes and Instruments of Torture
  • 3: Torture of Children and Women
  • 4: Medical Assistance to Torture
  • Part II: The Repressive System
  • 5: The Origins of the Military Regime
  • 6: The Consolidation of the Authoritarian State
  • 7: The History and Legal Structure of the Repressive System
  • 8: How Suspects Were Detained
  • Part III: Against Everything and Everybody
  • 9: A Profile of Repression
  • 10: Against Leftist Organizations
  • 11: Against Targeted Social Groups
  • 12: Against "Subversion"
  • Part IV: Distortion of the Law
  • 13: The Nature of Judicial Proceedings
  • 14: Six Sample Cases
  • Part V: "This Is Where Hell Is..."
  • 15: The Houses of Horror
  • 16: The Consequences of Torture
  • 17: Deaths under Torture
  • 18: The Disappeared
  • Notes
  • Appendices
  • I. Glossary of Acronyms
  • II. Statement on Torture by the World Council of Churches
  • III. List of "Disappeared" Political Prisoners

Jaime Wright lives in Vitória, Brazil, where he serves as a spokesman for the BNM project. Joan Dassin, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, has long experience as a human rights advocate and scholar of Brazil.


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Brazil is today experiencing a new page of hope in its history. With the election of the civilian Tancredo Neves to the presidency in January 1985 and the installation of his successor, José Sarney, following Neves' death just months later, twenty-one years of military rule have been overcome. The nation is dreaming of plans for reconstruction. Laws are beginning to be rethought. Those now in power have promised important policy changes to vast crowds gathered in public squares.

These same people, in earlier times, journeyed from hope to hope through similar new political beginnings that did not last very long. Years of greater tolerance of dissenting opinions and greater concern for social problems gave way, even before 1964 (the year of Brazil's most recent military coup), to fresh periods of intransigence, persecution, and even contempt for the demands of the marginalized.

This cannot now be repeated. The hope that is being born again today cannot be another transitory one. Decisions must be made and courageous measures taken to encourage the consolidation of democratic society. We must labor, tirelessly and constantly, to remove the vestiges of authoritarianism and to build a state based on the rule of law. That state must not only be firm in its foundations but also receptive to criticism. People must be allowed to participate, dissent, and challenge, and the cry of the poor, the cry of all the people, must be heard. Toward this end, we must learn the lessons that our recent past, our own history provides.

This book is the report on an investigation in the field of human rights. It is an unprecedented examination of the political repression that was directed against thousands of Brazilians considered by the military to be adversaries of the military regime that took power in April 1964. It is also an analysis of the resistance to that regime.

In March 1979, General João Baptista de Figueiredo was inaugurated as Brazil's president. He promised to broaden the political freedoms initiated during the previous administration of General Ernesto Geisel and to introduce democracy. A few months later, the research project "Brasil: Nunca Mais" ("Brazil: Never Again") began. Discretion and secrecy were essential to the success of the project. A small number of specialists dedicated themselves, for a period of more than five years, to produce the comprehensive study summarized in this book.

The "Brazil: Never Again" Project

Everywhere in the world, the issue of political repression is almost always brought to public notice by the denunciations of victims or by reports written by organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights. Whether emotional or well balanced, these testimonies help reveal a hidden history. But at times they are accused of tendentiousness because they come from victims who are often politically motivated.

The "Brazil: Never Again" (BNM) research project was able to resolve this problem by studying the repression carried out by the military regime through the very documents produced by the authorities performing the controversial task. This was done by bringing together the official legal proceedings of practically all political cases tried in Brazilian military courts between April 1964 and March 1979, especially those that reached the Supreme Military Court.

By fixing 15 March 1979, the date of Figueiredo's inauguration, as the end of the period to be investigated, those responsible for the research project assured that the work could proceed with a degree of historical detachment from the political repression being studied.

In numerous ways, copies of the complete proceedings of 707 political trials and dozens of incomplete proceedings were obtained, amounting in total to more than one million pages. These pages were immediately microfilmed in duplicate so that one copy could be kept in safety outside Brazil. The BNM team studied these records for more than five years, producing a report (Project A) of approximately 7,000 pages. Copies of a limited edition of Project A will be distributed to universities, libraries, documentation centers, and organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights in Brazil and abroad. Project A is a full account of what this book contains in summary form.

There were numerous difficulties as well as substantial risks for those involved in the BNM project. On the one hand, the traumatic period from 1964-79--marked by routine torture, deaths, and disappearances--was still very much alive in people's minds, causing fear and making precautions necessary. There was never certainty that the project could be finished or that it would ever be possible to publish it.

On 30 April 1981, for instance, when the BNM project was well under way, a failed bomb attack on a Rio de Janeiro theater indicated that the repressive organizations studied in the project were still active. In the incident, two military police officers were injured, one of them fatally, when the bomb they were transporting exploded. It was widely assumed that the police bomb was intended for the thousands of young people attending a May Day celebration. In view of the fact that the repressive forces were still capable of attempting such crimes, those involved in the BNM project went through some alarming moments.

There was also the pressure of time. The investigation was necessarily slow, given the difficulty in bringing together the documentary sources and the necessity that each page of hundreds of military court proceedings be studied carefully. Nevertheless, there was a real urgency to complete the task before a change in the political situation could put an end to the study or before a "convenient" fire in government offices could destroy valuable documents. In 1945, at the end of Getúlio Vargas' authoritarian New State (Estado Novo), such a fire in Rio de Janeiro destroyed the documents of the political police headed by Felinto Müller.

That is why the BNM project was always racing against the clock. The publication of its results is therefore an encouraging victory over all those risks and difficulties.

Some further explanation is in order regarding our sources.

Why were official military court proceedings chosen as the basic documentary source? In his book Surveiller et punir (Surveillance and Punishment), the French thinker Michel Foucault demonstrates that it is possible to reconstruct a good portion of the history of a certain period through the penal proceedings kept in the archives of the judiciary of any given country. The real nature of the state is recorded there in the form of court sentences involving torture or the quartering of bodies in public and in rules for the surveillance of prisoners and for corporal and psychological punishment. We thought that if in Brazil we could reconstruct the history of torture, murders of political prisoners, police persecutions, and biased trials--using the government's own official documentation--then we would have irrefutable evidence that these practices were officially authorized.

It could be argued that, by dispensing with statements by the victims themselves and working instead with documents produced by the authorities of the military government, the BNM project would be doomed to confirming only a small proportion of the human rights violations committed during that period. The documentary sources could be compared to objects from which the agents of repression had removed the "fingerprints" of crimes committed during the investigation. There was, on the other hand, a compensation: whatever official documentation could be produced regarding judicial irregularities, illegal acts, unjust measures, and reports of torture and deaths would constitute incontrovertible conclusive evidence. In other words, confirmation that the facts of torture were presented before a military court, confirmed by witnesses, and even recorded officially by medical examiners, without resulting in any steps to eliminate such practices or to make their perpetrators criminally responsible, is as much of a direct challenge to government authorities as is the denunciation that a victim of torture makes before a human rights organization.

The challenge was thus accepted to work with the basic information contained only in military court proceedings. Only occasionally did the BNM project use complementary sources. These are cited in the endnotes.

The BNM Report and the Contents of This Book

It is no simple task to produce an easily readable summary of thousands of pages containing the conclusions of an extended research project. It would be like trying to make a 28-minute TV program out of a 10-hour epic series.

Project A, the complete report on which this book is based, begins by describing the development of political institutions in Brazil between 1964 and 1979, starting with the origins of the military regime and ending with the building up of the repressive apparatus on the foundation of the Doctrine of National Security, the principal ideology of the regime.

Next, the methodology of the research project is explained, with military court proceedings classified according to the type of defendant charged (e.g., belonging to a particular leftist organization, social sector, etc.). An explanation regarding the collection of data, is also provided. In brief, it notes that two questionnaires were used to compile the information, which was then stored and processed on computers. Special computer programs were written for the project. The programs and the data generated, as well as microfilms of the actual documents, are stored safely outside of Brazil. In addition, a separate collection of 10,000 political documents appended to the military court proceedings also forms part of the project documentation. This entire archive will be of great value for future research into the Brazilian labor movement, the student struggle, and the history of clandestine leftist organizations, among other topics.

The third part of Project A is a detailed discussion of the results of research in the juridical field, through a comparison of what the laws--including those promulgated by the military regime--were intended to do and the actual practices of judicial inquests and proceedings. The dubious legitimacy of various national security laws and other legal codes decreed by the military regime is also discussed, followed by a study of the way these laws were routinely ignored in all cases where there was irregular treatment of persons being investigated.

In the fourth section there is a harrowing sequence of transcriptions of testimonies describing tortures, totaling approximately 2,700 typed pages. These denunciations, made in military courts, contain the names of torturers, torture centers, murdered political prisoners, the "disappeared," and countless other infamies. A list of all torturers named in military proceedings is provided, together with lists of all authorities connected with police and judicial acts of repression, as well as of all persons named as defendants or indicted.

The last section sets out the main conclusions that can be drawn from the study.

How was it possible to compress this vast amount of information into this book? A form had to be devised that could communicate the essence of those results without repeating the ungainly structure of a report or distressing readers with endless descriptions of the agonies of torture. Of course, it was not possible to extract a light or reassuring report from Project A. Only a strong and challenging book could emerge from a story of horrors.

In the following chapters, we have alternated the shocking denunciations with analytical passages that show the origins of the repressive apparatus, its structure, the uses of torture in the course of interrogation, and the collaboration of the judicial authorities in these abuses. In this fashion we have attempted to avoid the tedium of endless descriptions as well as the error of talking about those tortures and crimes as if they were unrelated to the political system installed in Brazil in 1964.

In the Portuguese edition, spelling and grammatical mistakes in original documents were preserved, although they will obviously not appear in the English edition. The only mistakes that have been corrected in both versions are those that might distort the meaning for the reader.

The objective of the research project "Brazil: Never Again," from its inception in August 1979 to its conclusion in March 1985, was to turn the wish expressed in its title into a reality, that is, to ensure that the violence, the infamy, the injustice, and the persecution of Brazil's recent past should never again be repeated.

It is not the intention of the BNM project to prepare evidence to be presented at a Brazilian Nuremberg trial. The project was not motivated by revenge. In their quest for justice, the Brazilian people have never been moved by such sentiments. What is intended is a work that will have an impact by revealing to the conscience of the nation, through the light shed by these denunciations, the dark reality of the political repression that grew unchecked after 1964. We thus observe the Gospel precept that counsels us to know the truth as a precondition for liberation ("You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free," John 8:32).

It is a happy coincidence that the results of this research project should be published at a time of national hope, when authoritarianism is being overcome, when new laws for the country are being promulgated, and when there is a new possibility of convening a constituent assembly to strengthen democratic institutions.

It is our hope that all who participate in that national debate will take note of the contents of this book, so that measures may be taken in order that these years of persecution and hatred may never again be repeated.

It is our hope that all who read this book will make a sacred vow to commit themselves to struggle ceaselessly to sweep from the face of the earth the practice of torture and eliminate from humanity the source of torture, of whatever type, for whatever offense, for whatever reason.

It is in this spirit that the project "Brazil: Never Again" was undertaken.

São Paulo, Brazil
March 1985


“This is the most important book to come out of Brazil in this decade, perhaps in the last 30 years.”


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