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The documentary chest of the “heavy” years

Studies on the Deops-SP archive reveal how the logic of repression functioned at the time of the dictatorship

Reproduction Caught in the act: pictures of repression from the archives of the dictatorshipReproduction

At first sight, to a layman nothing seems more guaranteed to cause drowsiness than an archive full of old documents. Disinterest is quickly converted into heated debate when that file guards a history of violations and the repression of the military dictatorship and, in many institutions, is kept under lock and key, hidden away from civil society despite the interest in its content and in times gone by. One only has to see the expectation surrounding ratification in the Senate, after its recent approval in Congress, of the new law relating to right of access to public information, which includes the archives of repression. This law has been designed to reduce the period of time documents and information are kept secret by public authorities and to establish procedures for ensuring access to this data, by putting an end to the previously established eternal secrecy. If approved, the new text stipulates that super-secret documents can be classified for up to 25 years and this may only be renewed once. “Fortunately, some lights like this one are illuminating our labyrinth of the ‘archives of repression’, which are also archival symbols of the resistance. These documents undoubtedly allow us to reconstitute and reassess the circumstances under which the violations occurred, to identify the agents of repression and recover, from reading between the lines, the traces left by the torturers. However, it’s necessary that the files don’t get caught up in legal machinery and are brought to light all over Brazil to be studied,” says historian and professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro, coordinator of the project supported by FAPESP, “Archives of repression and resistance, history and memory: mapping out and analyzing Deops documentation”, which includes the participation of nine professors with PhDs, besides the team of scholarship holders, who are checking the intrigue surrounding police repression between 1955 and 1983, with particular emphasis on the period of military dictatorship. “The relatives of the dead and missing and the Brazilian people, as a whole, are entitled to information, the truth and to memory. This is not a question of turning over a page of history, and much less an ‘historic reference point’, because it’s still a fact, it’s still part of ongoing history,” says the researcher. The theme is a continuation of another, earlier one, in 1999, also supported by FAPESP, which gave rise to PROIN (Integrated State Archive Project – University of São Paulo) and resulted in the organization of the documentation of the period between 1924 and 1954.

Besides opening up the archives, its analysis by researchers is fundamental for the new law on information secrecy not to become a mere dead letter of the law. “When the documents are released it still depends on systematic research, dedicated to identifying the human rights’ violations perpetrated by the State. Locating documents that prove the arbitrary imprisonment, torture and assassinations is no easy task. However, fortunately, there is an order by origin and date that, when cross-referenced with oral testimony, can bring us closer to those who ordered the crimes. We must learn to ‘read between the lines’ for clues and signs,” is the analysis of Maria Luiza. So, for example, if someone who was in the student movement resisting the dictatorship was arrested along with journalist Vladimir Herzog during the dictatorship period, according to military logic their prison records might be catalogued under “student movement” and not among the many other prison records of that particular day, which makes it very difficult for the family to locate the data relating to the missing political activist. “Hence the importance and need to scan the whole file to be able to access all of it and cross-reference the data and information that lead to the whereabouts of a name in the crowd. In the case of this fictitious student, for example, his records might have been cleared out and the part referring to his imprisonment might end up in other files, something which I believe may have been a deliberate police strategy for dispersing information and hindering access,” says the researcher.

ReproductionMovement against scarcityReproduction

The result is a new picture of the logic of the repression. “The investigation reports and the investigation sheets that make up these processes document decades of violence and State terrorism. The first sensation we have is that Brazilian society was, for decades, documented, invaded in their daily lives and raped. The military dictatorship was not as ‘mild’ as some would have us believe.” According to the researcher, “the Deops [State Department of Social and Political Order] kept a very close eye on São Paulo.” At the same time, for an historian, this invasion is nonetheless a gift, since it brings together extremely detailed documentation about each and every act of resistance, covering even the anonymous groups that were occupying the streets. “They confiscated files and the lives of citizens to prove that there was subversion and thus they created for posterity archives of how the resistance emerged from this repression. Hence the name of our project,” she explains. In the various files about USP, which filled 151 volumes, for example, there is precise information about the classes of professors who were viewed as being suspect, like Florestan Fernandes, and even the reading list he indicated [to his students], which might even be attached to the process in book form. “We have a mixture of the history of surveillance with the history of the revolutionary press and the history of reading. It is possible to know today what a worker was reading, because in invading his home his books and writings were confiscated and annexed to the files. There are even wonderful cases of manuscripts of unpublished poems and novels that were stolen by the police and can now see the light of day again. From repression the history of repression is recovered.” It was an obsession with surveillance.

“This obsession as a way of preventing ‘subversive’ action ended up generating the logic of suspicion or a persecution ethos. The thousands of agents involved, the public officials or co-opted informers were governed by this logic, and by incorporating it, ended up producing a phenomenon typical of authoritarian regimes: more important than producing information itself was producing suspicion,” says historian Marcos Napolitano, from the Federal University of Parana, who is working on Deops files for his research “Cultural policies and democratic resistance in Brazil in the 1970’s,” which is supported by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “These documents clearly had a function as accusatory items for use in possible proceedings or more directed punishment, ready to be triggered at any time. In addition to recording words and attitudes, the texts reveal the inferences of the agents, in the sense of pointing to the existence of a perpetual conspiracy, orchestrated by ‘subversive’ political groups. A simple observation, contained in the record of the activities of a suspect, could become more prominent in future reports produced by the organisms, in a technique of growing reiteration that increased the degree of suspicion hanging over those who were being watched,” something that might happen, sometimes, in a space of days. In the interrogation of a student about his professor, Warvick Estevam Kerr, a geneticist and former scientific director of FAPESP, written down in the oddest of ways by the clerk, there is a noticeable change when faced with terror. “That he does not know whether professor Warckis Kerr from the School of Ribeirão Preto is a leftist,” on June 22, 1971; “His contacts with professor Warvick Koer, of the chair of genetics at the Medical School of Ribeirão Preto, were of a strictly functional nature. The declarant is unaware of the political ideology of aforementioned professor,” on June 23; “That he believes the professor really is an active element in the politics of the left; that he hopes, when he has finished answering the accusations with which he has now been charged, to continue his medical course and never again get involved in politics,” on June 25 of that year.

Banned political prisoners

“The citizen is controlled by the State, which tries to obtain adherence to the political regime through repression and censure. With its geopolitics of control,  the State attempts to inhibit acts of protest and the popular rebellions, supported by specific legislation. In this context, domestication of the masses depends on the systematic surveillance of the legal application of the concept of the political crime and the control of information, actions that imply the progressive privation of citizenship,” explains Maria Luiza. To spy on citizens it is necessary to accumulate maximum information for the files, records obtained by investigators trained in detecting the political suspects and criminals who infiltrated groups reckoned to be subversive and observe them. The information, continues the researcher, was accumulated in such a way as to provide evidence for the accusation of political crime, which most of the time was arbitrary. After all, what was paradoxical about State actions, even the most secret of them, or those carried out in periods of exception, is that, in line with the bureaucratic dynamic, they were recorded. “It needs to be remembered that political crime is a crime of ideas, which to be proved, must become material through proof that is elicited from the accused. These proofs were attached to the name or institutional records that served to ‘build up’ the accusation.” “Imprisonment of the Red Wing group in Embu-Guaçu once again confirms the participation of students in the subversive-terrorist process that was taking place in São Paulo. Young high school and university students were being intensely ‘worked upon’ by subversive organizations and many of them, ill-prepared and with no guidance from their parents and teachers, adhered, swelling the ranks of these organizations,” stated a Special Information Report from 1969.

“The discourse of order assumes an accusatory tone when it points to the enemy, whose negative image is being built up from proof collected from areas of sedition (hence the search and seizure orders and the investigation reports). In this case who was ‘constructing’ part of the official history and the apparent truth was the police authority, which based on observation and materialization of the crime (concrete proof), interfered with reality. These proofs, when judged by the higher courts and propagated by the press via releases prepared by the National Press Agency, became the consensus, thus legitimizing repression,” Maria Luiza believes. The agents were not always successful, however. “We do not think the declarant has the minimum party political knowledge; he is not even aware of what the AP (Popular Action) is. Likewise, he revealed that he is unaware of what activities are undertaken by a terrorist organization. He was invited to work against the ‘dictatorship’, the precise meaning of which he does not know, believing it to deal with a government that governs through a president, whose people it intends to overthrow. In concluding, the declarant revealed a poor intellectual level and complete ignorance of political and ideological matters,” stated a preliminary interrogation report. In another the prisoner declared that “he recognizes he was ‘stupid’ when he stored explosive material without knowing what it was for. That he is not a member of any clandestine organization and that he does not know the war names, Lou being his friend’s family nickname. That he was totally taken in by his friend and that he had no time to think about politics, nor does he have any book on communist ideology in his home.”

ReproductionMilitary action against guerrillas in the Caparaó hillsReproduction

“These interrogations reflect the attempt to impose a certain order on the discourse, in which the values and principles of the military government were restated in detriment to the political concepts of those interrogated,” observes historian, Mariana Joffily, author of the PhD thesis, “At the heart of the machinery,” tutored by Maria Aparecida de Aquino and defended in 2008 at USP. “The witness is a liar and a cynic, omitting details of his participation in the POC and clarifying elements that are currently militant. He only reveals the names of ex-militants and people who have fled the country,” said an interrogation report. “The witness is cold and calculating, limiting himself to declaring facts that happened strictly to himself, flatly refusing to mention the names of people who fought with him in the organization. He defended the Armed Revolution, referring to the country’s authorities as: big gorillas, common soldiers, pseudo(sic)-revolution, etc.” Other records from Deops may even cause uncontrollable laughter, like the letter sent to then-governor of São Paulo, Paulo Egydio Martins, because of the show held at the Ibirapuera Gymnasium, with government patronage, at which singer, Mercedes Sosa, sang the song “Somos todos hermanos” [We’re all brothers], which allowed the audience to shout slogans against the dictatorship. “How could this have happened at a show promoted by the state itself,” asks the letter from the head of the SNI to the Governor.

Others are not so amusing. In 1969, the then-Dean of USP sent Deops a list of employees who were approved in the public employment admission exams, with the observation that “given the increasing abnormality in the universities the dean was asked that all public employees be screened in this department urgently and confidentially.” Of the list, 19 of those approved received an observation from Deops because they had been mentioned in some sort of ongoing investigation recorded in their files. Deops files even express concern about communist infiltration in the Vai Vai samba school, since it was beginning to be visited by members of the left, like Ruth Escobar and Ricardo Zaratini. Even today’s presidential candidates did not escape the rigor of Deops and are recorded in the archives. “One of the heads of the communist revolution. He has been a great agitator and troublemaker since he was chairman of UNE. An experienced indoctrinator of Marxist ideology, he dictates the rules of conduct for all student organizations,” say the records on Jose Serra. “She’s already in prison,” says a note written in pencil on the sheet of Dilma Rousseff in the files that was sent to the state Deops.

ReproductionFiles were also kept on those taking part in demonstrations against nuclear power stationsReproduction

The Deops-SP archive, which is the focus of the work, is a major exception, thanks to the stance adopted by the São Paulo government, which in 1994 fully released consultation of the documents of the fund that is kept in the State Archives. The military regime, through the “bionic governors” at the end of their mandates, extinguished the Deops in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and transferred their files to the Federal Police. “In other states files were concealed or destroyed, as in Minas Gerais, where the police claim to have burned the original Deops documentation. In 1991 the process of gathering documentation from the political police for the Public Archives began, the first step on the path towards opening up these documents to the public,” says historian Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and author of “On guard against the red danger” (Editora Perspectiva). “In the south, Deops documents were only collected in full in Parana. In Santa Catarina, the Public Archives are unaware of the location of the documentation and in Rio Grande do Sul only part of the archive was collected. The best situation is in the southeast, because in its four states the documents are in their respective archives,” he says. “In the midwest the only Deops archive open to consultation is the one in Goias, which is in the custody of the Central Library of the Federal University of Goias. In the northeast the documents of Deops in Pernambuco, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe are in their respective Public Archives. In Bahia and Paraiba, the Public Archives do not know the whereabouts of the documents. In 11, out of a total 20 states of the federation, Deops files have been collected and preserved. What was achieved is still unsatisfactory.”

“Providing access to this documentation must form part of a wider process of healing, truth and justice. However, it is not a set of documents that any citizen can interpret, like documents in a museum. These documents need to receive the intermediation of researchers and professors. This is the target of our disclosure policies and there must be public funding for carrying out the research and developing academic products. It seems to me to be the best way of guaranteeing the capillarity of this material in society,” explains Rodolfo Peres Rodrigues, who is responsible for the Deops archive in Goiás, which is in the custody of the Federal University of Goiás in its Information, Documentation and Archive Center. “Access to these documents represents an expansion of citizenship, since it enables people who have suffered deeply from the repression to have the chance to claim their rights. Furthermore, it is important that the military period can be revisited in detail, as recorded in the actions of the political police in Minas Gerais. Disclosure of the collection has meant opening up new fields of research, given the difficulty of obtaining sources that had not passed through the filter of censorship at the time.  Despite this, there is a possibility that the microfilms we receive are only part of the documents from Deops-MG and that the police may have retained a substantial part of the archives,” says Maria Eugenia Lage, superintendent of the Minas Gerais Public Archive.

The Public Archives of Rio de Janeiro State has worked with the most complete collection of the alternative press since 1960 and is directed by historian, Beatriz Kushnir. “It’s not enough for historians just to do research on the files; the information needs to reach high school students via first and second grade teachers. They are not aware of this documentation and we need to break down this distance. Hence the real importance, once and for all, to open up the files of the machinery of the State, which needs to return to civil society what it took from people,” says Beatriz.