SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — THE discovery last September of political prisoners' skeletons buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of Sao Paulo has provided not only final answers about the atrocities of Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship, but has also brought to light age-old questions about what history can teach a nation. Every weekday afternoon, Crimea de Alm'eida travels back to the 1970s at the Sao Paulo city morgue. After picking up the carefully guarded key from the director, she unlocks a room on the third floor and sits down to pore over huge, dusty books of old records and photographs.
Ms. Alm'eida is part of a group of relatives of people who disappeared during the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The group is trying to match families' information with morgue data while forensic specialists examine the skeletons. By crossing these data, human rights activists hope to identify up to 50 political prisoners among the 1,500 skeletons, most of which belong to indigents.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Brazil's military government censored the media, controlled politics, arrested and tortured urban intellectuals, and fought a war with guerrillas in the remote Araguaia region. According to human rights activists who secretly researched military files during the regime and published their findings in the book ``Brasil Nunca Mais'' (Brazil Never Again), 125 Brazilians disappeared between 1964 and 1979. Families of political prisoners say that about 400 people either disappeared or are known to have died at the hands of the military.
TODAY, Brazil is a developing democracy, governed by a freely elected Congress and the country's first directly elected president in 29 years, Fernando Collor de Mello. Fears of communism and of repression are gone, replaced by economic recession worries. Most people rarely think of the era of repression.
But the relatives and human rights activists say their work on the past is important because it helps to explain and denounce today's human rights violations.
``We want to clear up the facts, identify the guilty, judge them in court, and demand compensation,'' says Alm'eida, a nurse who lost a husband, a father-in-law, and a close friend. Alm'eida, who was herself put in a prison and gave birth to a son there, says that justice is important not only to prove that her relatives did not choose to disappear, as the military claims, but also because today's ``police violence is the fruit of the impunity that [the police] had and still have now.''
Today's human rights violations have little to do with politics, but they affect many more people than were hurt or killed by the military regime. ``We have summary shootings by the police or death squads every night out here,'' says Fernando Altemeyer, a Roman Catholic priest who lives and works in the poor city outskirts. ``In [neighboring] Jardim Sinh'a, residents don't go out after 8 p.m. because of the shooting.''
Many of the victims are young. Last year, according to the Brazilian Institute for Economic and Social Analyses, 457 children and adolescents died in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and Manaus, killed by informally organized death squads. The institute says most of them had no criminal record. Violence is a part of life in the shantytowns of Brazil, where drug dealers, police, and crime-avengers slug it out every day.
``In 1989, the Sao Paulo police killed 585 suspects and in New York over the same period, the police killed only 12,'' says Oscar Vilhena Vieira, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo Violence Studies Nucleus. ``Brazilian society allows the police to continue to act authoritatively. [Only] now, the enemy is the poor black who is in a suspect place at night.''
The Sao Paulo military police have a somewhat different view. Col. Hermes Bittencourt Cruz, who commands 29,000 men and women in the greater metropolis, says they have a hard job. Most of the myriad poor, confused immigrant families from rural areas, don't understand law enforcement, don't obey the law, and don't respect the police, he says. For their part, the police are mostly young, inexperienced, badly paid, and come from poor families and bad schooling. Half the force is black.
AS an institution, the colonel points out, the police don't condone violence. But he does ``accept that [police violence] can exist among individuals,'' he says. It takes time, longer than the eight-month training period, ``for genuine police principles, such as the protection of human rights and life and property, to sink in'' to recruits' minds. ``They think that the police can do anything,'' admits the colonel.
Suspects who are killed, says Colonel Cruz, are mostly criminals who engage the police in armed confrontations. ``If I look at the 585 pseudo-suspects [killed last year], I will find [only] from 10 to 15 police errors.'' The Brazilian police vehicles, he adds, don't have onboard computers to identify individuals on the spot. In cases of alleged error, military police officials investigate, judge, and punish. Rights activists say the process is more lenient than a civil court would be.
Colonel Cruz argues that his police force comes under a strict conduct code, the military penal code, and the civil penal code, with severe consequences for transgressors. ``Why would a policeman shoot someone, when he could lose his job and his family will suffer?'' he asks.
According to Cruz, this year's 154 dismissals and 62 expulsions, with lighter punishment for many more, is a reasonable response to the 1,269 complaints citizens presented against the police up to September of this year.
As Brazil struggles to develop a stable political system and economy out of chaotic socioeconomic conditions, it's not clear what lessons the past really holds for the present. For many people, the answer is laughter; a new television comedy features a bumbling private eye named Araponga, a former security agent with a mania for conspiracy theories.
``For people involved with [the opposition], or who lost someone in the process of repression, now is a moment of justice, a time to put their anguish to peace,'' says Paulo de Castro, a Brazilian banker who was in high school during the worst years of the regime. ``But if you weren't involved, you see this much more as a distant event.... People don't reason using the past to give comfort to the present,'' he adds. ``Either you have or don't have justice in the present.''