Brutal Photos Force Brazil To Reexamine 'Dirty War'

For many Brazilians, gruesome photos of slain rebels splashed across newspaper front pages in late April were a grim reminder of their past.

And for some, they were a key to the start of settling the debate over the armed forces and their reluctance to clarify what happened to hundreds of political victims during Brazil's 21-year dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.

As many as 353 died in custody during the military's "dirty war" with its leftist opposition. The victims "disappeared" or were officially registered as suicides or fatalities from accidents or shootouts.

Two of the disappeared, Maria Luca Petit and Kleber Lemos - shown in the 1972 photos - had joined 67 other Brazilian Communist Party members in the jungle of the remote Araguaia River region to start a revolution to topple the military government.

The photos were leaked to the Rio daily O Globo by a source with access to military files. Sixty-six pages of notes accompanied the photos and provided detailed description of the deaths and burial sites of 31 of 78 guerrillas whose bodies were never found.

The Araguaia disclosure has forced the government to send forensic teams to the area to investigate. With them will be members of the Justice Department's Special Commission for the Dead and the Disappeared. This week, they are expected to begin exhuming 25 bodies at three different burial sites.

Other nations' efforts

The O Globo revelations come as several Latin American countries struggle to come to terms with repressive pasts. On May 19, some 50,000 Uruguyans demonstrated on the streets of the capital, Montevideo, to ask their government to investigate the disappearances that occurred during that country's dirty war in the 1970s. As in Brazil, an amnesty in Uruguay prevents prosecution of military personnel who killed dissidents, but it does not ban investigations.

Civilian governments in Chile and Argentina created "truth commissions" to discover the circumstances of political murders committed under military dictatorships in those countries.

Brazil, on the other hand, has narrowed the scope of its commission by not empowering it to look for victims' graves.

As a result, Brazil has been criticized by human rights groups. They argue that as a signatory of the American Convention on Human Rights in 1992, the nation has not fulfilled its international obligations to investigate human rights violations.

Last July, Human Rights Watch/Americas petitioned the Organization of American States to force Brazil to disclose all information regarding the Araguaia guerrillas. The Army had always contended that the guerrillas died in combat, were left on the battlefield because of the area's extreme isolation, or were buried by their own comrades. However, the documents reveal that Ms. Petit was killed while seeking food and was buried in a clandestine grave. Mr. Lemos was captured, executed, and also buried secretly.

"There is no excuse anymore [to say] that they disappeared in combat and can't be found," Congressman Nilmrio Miranda says. "We are going to ask the Army, which certainly has important documents about this episode, to help find their whereabouts."

For the armed forces, the issue of disappeared persons just won't go away. Many officers believed it had finally been resolved last August after President Fernando Henrique Cardoso introduced Law 9140, which acknowledged military responsibility for 136 deaths and ordered compensation for each family with payments of between $108,000 and $165,000. At that time, he also created the commission, which is studying the requests of the families of another 217 victims whose relatives were not on the list.

The law requires compensation if a victim died in military or police custody.

"The government decided to resolve the question by determining who was killed, pay an indemnity, and then turn the page on this chapter in history," says James Cavallaro, the director of the Brazil office of Human Rights Watch/Americas. "They did not want to provoke a highly adverse reaction from the military."

Indeed, military officers have complained that all documents regarding the disappeared have been made public and that attempts to investigate such deaths would only open old wounds.

Congressman Jos Genono has been a vocal congressional supporters of a full investigation. He has personal reasons. One of the leaked photos showed Mr. Genono in 1972, as an Araguaia guerrilla, handcuffed and leaning up against tree after his capture. "Even though I believe the Araguaia fight was legitimate, it showed that armed struggle is not the answer to Brazil's problems," he said in a telephone interview.

Genono, who spent five years in prison for his revolutionary activities, says the armed forces are now led by "professional officers with open minds who will go along with exhumations and future indemnities."

Yet he says they would draw the line if the commission awarded compensation to the families of Brazil's two famous 1960s revolutionaries - Carlos Marighella and Carlos Lamarca. Both Marighella and Lamarca founded rebel groups that robbed banks to finance their operations and kidnapped ambassadors from the United States and Switzerland to exchange them for jailed colleagues.

Their families have questioned official accounts that they perished in shootouts with authorities and have asked to be added to the commission's list.

This angered the lone military figure on the commission. "Marighella was a victim of the kind of ambush that he himself used," Gen. Oswaldo Pereira Gomes told the daily Folha de So Paulo. "It was a war, and in war you don't wait to eliminate your enemy."

Leaks against military

In the meantime, several Araguaia residents, who were guides and gravediggers for the Army during its antiguerrilla campaign, are talking to the press for the first time in nearly 25 years.

"It's impossible to bury the truth. Twenty years after the fact, somebody will confess, and documents will be leaked," says Mr. Cavallaro. "Unless there is a thorough investigation, you curse your country to incomplete, erratic revelations that raise these issues anew each time."

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