In São Paulo, bones in a clandestine grave from a cemetery deteriorate while awaiting identification. Among the unidentified skeletons are disappeared political activists, victims of the infamous Death Squad of rogue police active in the 1960s and 1970s, and children who died in a 1970’s São Paulo epidemic of meningitis, which the dictatorship tried to cover up.
Photos: Yghor Boy from CartaCapital
“My father was killed by the dictatorship and was buried in Perus.” This deposition from Grenaldo da Silva Mesut, a physical education professor, is just one of many from the family members of 42 disappeared political activists that could be interred in Dom Bosco Cemetery, located northwest of São Paulo in the Perus neighborhood and used to bury victims of state repression.
Discovered in 1990 during mayor Luiza Erundina’s administration, the clandestine grave contained 1,049 remains, all unidentified. Among the unidentified skeletons are disappeared political activists, victims of the Esquadrão da Morte—the infamous Death Squad of rogue police active in the 1960s and 1970s—, and children who died after an outbreak of meningitis struck São Paulo in the early 1970s, an epidemic suppressed by the dictatorship.
“Identifying the bones of my father and of the others is a chance for us to demonstrate the crimes of the dictatorship and to recover the truth and the memory of the victims,” affirms Mesut, son of Grenaldo de Jesus Silva, killed by a gunshot to the chest in 1972 at the Congonhas Airport while sequestering a Varig aircraft in a plot against the regime. According to the military government, the activist released the crew and committed suicide with a gunshot to the head. “My father did not commit suicide; he was killed.”
The search for the whole story behind the cadavers in the Perus grave is threatened. After decades of abandonment, the bones and the sacks that they are wrapped in are moldy and in a very poor state of conservation. If the government does not speed up the material analysis, the slow progress of the fungi will end up devouring the last genetic remnants in the collagen of the bones, which would make DNA tests impossible.
Despite the feeling of urgency among the victims’ families, they are confronted with government claims of a lack of resources. For 23 years, from 1990 to 2013, the remains circulated between public agencies. Under the watch of the University of Campinas in the 1990s, the skeletons were kept in open sacks, scattered around a room without climate control and exposed to flooding. In 2001, custody passed to the University of São Paulo, and the bones were sent to the General Ossuary of Araçá Cemetery, where they were also at risk of being contaminated and degraded. Renovations were made, but the ossuary continued to have insufficient climate control.
Until today, only three remains have been identified: the former political prisoners Dênis Casemiro and Frederico Eduardo Mayr, at the beginning of the 1990s, and Flávio de Carvalho Molina, in 2005, after his mother Maria Helena Molina filed legal proceedings against the federal government and the Federal Public Ministry completed a DNA test.
Only in September of 2013, when an accord was reached between the Secretary of Human Rights of the Presidency, the Municipal Secretary of Human Rights in São Paulo and the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), did systematic analyses begin to be conducted.
With funds from the Ministry of Education, a house in the southern zone of São Paulo was converted into a forensic anthropology laboratory at UNIFESP. The government contracted Brazilian and Peruvian professionals, and 433 boxes with the material were transferred to the laboratory. Of these, 112 were analyzed between October and December of 2014. Six remains were found with blunt wounds and three with firearm wounds, but they still lack DNA identification. The remaining 638 boxes wait at the Araçá Cemetery.
“The boxes are moldy because only the lower level of the house was renovated and adapted,” denounced Maria Amélia Teles, founder of the Commission for Families of the Killed and Disappeared and founder of the State Truth Commission of São Paulo. “What is more, the number of professionals is few and we have urgent need of the bones’ identification. For too long, family members have been dying, making it even more difficult to identify the disappeared.” Amelinha, as she is known, also fears the budget cuts announced by the government.
The human rights minister, Ideli Salvatti, assured CartaCapital that the cuts would not hamper the work. “Just like last year, when the Secretary of Human Rights budget lacked a rubric for experts and we found a solution, I have no doubt that we will fulfill our commitment to the families,” she guaranteed. “Now we have to await congressional approval of the 2015 budget to continue with our planning.” According to the minister, the renovation of the upstairs of the house is a priority.
In the race against time, 17 employees work to analyze the material. DNA will be extracted from the remains with the greatest probability of being disappeared political activists, but only after the verification of the 1,049 skeletons.
Though the operation prioritizes the identification of disappeared political activists, the families of victims of extermination groups or whose children died as a result of sanitation failures by the dictatorship could also solicit tests on the bones.
For Amelinha, there is a lack of political will. “The difficulty in finding money for the investigations and the absence of the Perus grave in the Truth Commission’s report are evidence that the government doesn’t want to confront the crimes of the dictatorship.”
The minister of Human Rights counters this accusation. She reminds people that her administration was the only one to send the remains for analysis and foresees the final phase of bone identification yet this year. “The DNA tests will be done all at once. Until then, if a bone has strong indications of being from one of the disappeared political activists, the Federal Police will conduct an exam.”
With so many former political prisoners in their midst, it would be inexcusable for a Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores—PT) administration to be responsible for the total and definitive loss of a crucial part of the memory of the regime’s atrocities.
Holly Holmes is a translator, ethnomusicologist, and vocalist who is passionate about sharing stories from Brazil on everything from politics and ecology to music and education.