Torture Reports: Brazil and the United States Release Reports Documenting Systematic Human Rights Abuses

One day after the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its Executive Summary of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program exposing a policy of torture applied in the War on Terror, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff unveiled her country’s investigatory National Truth Commission Report, identifying human rights atrocities committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988.

One day after the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its Executive Summary of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program exposing a policy of torture applied in the War on Terror, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff unveiled her country’s investigatory National Truth Commission Report, identifying human rights atrocities committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988.

The atrocities covered in these two reports occurred decades apart, under historical conditions quite distinct from one another, perpetuated by significantly different nations. However, both reports reveal systematic torture sanctioned under a national security doctrine, the use of brutal methods and clandestine prisons, and a reliance on the concealment of extralegal activities while protecting its architects with impunity.

Documents released by the U.S. State Department and published earlier this year by Brazil’s Truth Commission (CNV) reiterate a relationship of complicity. The U.S. government was aware of the torture techniques applied in Brazil and their widespread application. The Johnson and Nixon administrations found a solid ally in Brazil and a government willing to do dirty its hands to further the foreign policy agenda in the region. Cold war gains against communism and Cuban/Soviet influence coupled with the promotion of economic interests outweighed human rights considerations, just as the war on terrorism provided cover for atrocities committed in rendition sites and U.S. prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo.

The Brazil Case

Fifty years ago, a right-wing junta seized power in a U.S.-backed coup d’état against progressive President João Goulart. For twenty years, a succession of military dictatorships retained power. Like other authoritarian regimes that followed in the Southern Cone during the region’s “Dirty Wars”, Brazil applied the national security doctrine against perceived enemies of the state in order to justify its repressive apparatus. Military decrees dissolved the democratic government and eliminated civil and political rights.

Casting a wide net in its definition of terrorists and subversives, the Armed Forces and police arrested or kidnapped guerillas and the armed resistance movement along with oppositional party members, labor union organizers, clergy and church workers, human rights activists, journalists, youth leaders, professors, farmers, indigenous, as well as transgendered people for “political crimes”.  State sponsored terror guaranteed the repression of civil society and the elimination of perceived threats to the regime’s absolute power.

Released on December 10, Brazil’s CNV report identified 434 murdered victims. Of these, 210 remain disappeared—presumed dead at the hand of the military regime but without definitive evidence of what happened to them. The crimes listed in the report include summary executions, homicide caused by prolonged and intensive torture, lying about to the cause of death and facts surrounding it, and burying victims in clandestine graves so their bodies could not be discovered and thus the nature of their violent deaths could not be ascertained.

President Rousseff’s personal history represents one of the estimated thirty thousand torture victims. Active in armed, underground resistance groups, Rousseff was captured in 1970 and imprisoned for nearly three years. Her torture included electric shocks. Naked, she was bound a pole by her feet and arms and suspended for an extended period of time. This was a commonly used method referred to as the parrot perch. Other victims reported sexual assault, beatings, and psychological torture to include threatening harm to family members. Confessions obtained during violent interrogations were used against the defendants. Approximately 7,400 cases were tried in military courts during the height of the regime.

The U.S. Case

Marked by the 9/11 attacks, the Bush doctrine along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reinvigorated the United States’ identity as a national security state. According to the 2002 National Security Strategy, the nation’s greatest threats were “shadowy networks of individuals [who] can bring great chaos and suffering to [our] shores for less than it costs to produce a single tank.”

The broadly defined enemy in the war against terrorism was used to undermine obligations toward prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.  The Department of Justice provided legal justification for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Prisoners rounded up in the war on terror were identified as “enemy combatants” in an ad hoc process that included numerous cases of mistaken identity or were based on false intelligence. Denied the writ of habeas corpus, they were held indefinitely and without charges. The Executive Summary identified 119 individuals detained in secret detention centers in third-party countries in Eastern Europe and Thailand, Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The torture techniques the CIA applied to 39 detainees are eerily similar to those employed in Brazil. Standing, prisoners hands were shackled above the head—intended to invoke the same physical pain as Brazil’s parrot perch described above. Prisoners were made to believe they would die through methods like intensive waterboarding simulated the sensation of drowning, provoking vomiting and blackouts. Psychological torture included stripping the prisoner naked to produce the sensation of complete vulnerability and dehumanization, as did forcing prisoners to wear a diaper, sleep deprivation to the point of hallucination, and threatening harm to family members. Dungeon-like prison conditions and isolation caused additional documented trauma.

Historical Convergence – Complicity

In July of this year, Brazil’s CNV published 43 declassified documents released by the U.S. Department of State in conjunction with Vice President Joe Biden’s World Cup visit.  Spanning 1967 through 1977, the documents reveal U.S. president administrations’ knowledge of ‘excesses’ by the Brazilian government, a policy of playing soft on criticizing human rights violations so as not affect a close working relationship with a strong regional ally, and a desire to keep U.S. Congressional oversight and influence over executive foreign policy in check.

A telegram from the American Embassy in Brasilia to the Secretary of State dated July 1972, states that high-level Brazilian officials acknowledged mistreatment of prisoners and hints to the application of its national security doctrine as justification:

Thus there is ample evidence that harsh interrogation techniques are still being employed at regional and local levels…it is unlikely that excesses will be totally eliminated as long as this security-minded government believes that there still exists a terror threat, to the elimination of which is assigned great priority, rightly or wrongly, many Brazilians attribute the success of anti-terrorism program to the strength of measures employed against subversives and there are indications that most Brazilians exercising influence upon the regime are prepared to accept international criticism so long as the government considers these measures to be necessary.

The memo goes on to criticize U.S. Congressional investigations including the Senate Select Committee hearings on CIA operations led by Frank Church, and the Tunney Amendment, halting covert assistance to anti-communist forces in Angola with potential repercussions for Brazil.  The memo advocates for treading delicately in regards to criticizing the government of Brazil on human rights and dissuading Senate efforts to intervene in the Nixon government’s foreign policy goals.

Moreover, given Brazilian pride and sensitivity about sovereignty, efforts by any branch of US government or by US political figures to bring pressure on Brazil would not only damage our general relations, but by equating reduction in anti-terrorist measures with weakness under pressure, could produce opposite of intended result….

In lieu thereof, we should continue quietly on our present course which is more conducive to ultimate success, and certainly more consistent with relationships between sovereign states which share enormous common interests (emphasis added).

The exchange claimed that senior-level officials disdained the most violent abuses and were intent on eliminating them due to complications in terms of international relations. At that juncture, high-level Brazilian officials were already confident they had captured the most wanted targets and therefore felt the harshest measures were no longer necessary. The memo blames the local police officials for continued excesses and whitewashes the government of Brazil of responsibility for what it deemed elsewhere to be ‘an image problem’:

It obviously would be impossible for the president now or at any time in the future to be in a position realistically to certify that the GOB is not engaged in torture of political prisoners. Indeed, I do not see how any such negative certification would be possible with respect to any country, without exception simply because there is no way of ascertaining whether or not overzealous police officials, acting with or without authority, engage in practices of this sort.

One Airgram memo dated May 3, 1973 from the American Consular General RIO DE JANEIRO to the Department of State Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, notes a key change in methods used to extract information. The memo touts with some relief, “newer, more sophisticated and elaborate psychophysical duress system …used to intimidate and terrify the suspect,” that did not lead to complications of physical evidence of torture or result in the death of the prisoner.

Arrests by First Army agents of suspected subversives have increased dramatically during the past several weeks in the Rio area. Mostly university students are being subjected to an intensive psychophysical system of duress designed to extract information without doing visible, lasting harm to the body.  Those suspected of being hardened terrorists, it is said, are still being submitted to the older methods of physical violence which sometimes cause death.

The memo projects that the confessions obtained under such interrogations have allowed the police to go after a wider circle of suspected subversives or sympathizers:

The most plausible reason behind the upsurge of arrests seems to be that efficient police follow-up on information extracted from detentions made earlier this year has produced an ever-expanding number of suspected subversives to be apprehended.

Given that confessions obtained under duress frequently results in false leads—once again evident according to the U.S.’s Executive Summary—the system of detention and torture perpetuated itself by reinforcing for security institutions as well as the public, the continued need for a heightened state of emergency. Thus the structure of violence proliferated.

Historical Convergence – Collaboration

The CNV report and the released U.S. State Department documents do not uncover the Pentagon and CIA’s influence and assistance toward supporting the Brazilian military government and its repressive apparatus. Brazil’s first comprehensive report on human rights violations by the military regime was Brazil Nunca Mais (Brazil Never Again), published by the Archdiocese of São Paulo in 1985, compiled from surreptitiously copied military archives.

One of the worst perpetrators of torture and state-sponsored violence identified in the CNV report was the third in the succession of military dictators, General Emilio Garrastazú Médici. According to the Archdiocese’s report, “When Médici took office on 30 October 1969 with the motto ‘Security and Development’ he ushered in the most repressive and violent period since Brazil had become a republic. A number of virtually independent ‘security organs’ were created to carry out the suppression of civil liberties. In the following years thousands of Brazilians were sent to prisons, and torture and killings by the state became routine.”(i)

A declassified December 9, 1971 memorandum obtained by the National Security Archive reveals President Nixon and President Emilio Garrastazú Médici had a “close and friendly relationship” that resulted in a back channel to deal with initiatives and issues in the region. During the meeting between the two, they discussed the Cuban position as well as the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Nixon’s hopes to “cooperate closely, as there were many things that Brazil as a South American country could do that the U.S. could not.”

Brazil Never Again revealed CIA training of Brazilian Armed Forces and police officers in systematic torture, through a so-called scientific process used to extract intelligence in counterterrorism programs.  An American agent, Dan Mitrione trained Brazilian personnel on the techniques, demonstrating them on indigent people kidnapped off the street. Additional examples of U.S. trained agents of torture include Maocir Coelho, founder of Brazil’s National Information Service (SNI) who headed Brazil’s Federal Police and army general Amaury Kruel, leader of the death squad Homens Corajosos (Courageous Men). (ii) School of the Americas Watch has identified twenty-one notorious Brazilian graduates linked to human rights atrocities during the era of the military dictatorship.

The CNV Report also investigated the repressive coordination under Operation Condor and victims of what was a multi-state effort to eliminate critics of the dictatorship and targeted ‘enemies of the state’. Systematic use of interrogation techniques was replicated notably by the military regimes that participated in Condor– Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia.


One of the key aspects of Brazil’s CNV report absent in the U.S. Executive Summary is the identification of the architects and perpetrators of torture. One of President Dilma Rousseff’s accused torturers is retired lieutenant colonel Murício Lopez Lima. Lima, along with fellow perpetrators of violence to include the military dictators—four of whom are deceased, including General Emilio Garrastazú Médici —have never had to face justice. They have been shielded from prosecution by a 1979 amnesty law.  According to Human Rights Watch, advances have been made through the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and federal tribunals allowing for the prosecution of crimes deemed ‘on going’ such as forced disappearances. Eyes will be on the Supreme Court to see if the investigation will result in long-delayed justice.

In the U.S., the power struggle over the release of the Executive Summary—a fraction of the highly detailed 6,000 page classified study on CIA detention and interrogation—demonstrates the ideological division between officials that abetted and continue to condone torture techniques as a necessary evil in the war on terror, versus those intent on revealing the truth of the brutality and criminality of what was a structure of violence and eradicating the use of torture by U.S. agents and agencies.

It is important to note that in both cases, evidence critical to each investigation was destroyed. As in Brazil, until the systematic and widespread nature of human rights abuses were revealed, they were blame on rogue individuals acting outside of their mandate and obligations—an almost identical claim made by high level Brazilian officials of the military regime until Brazil Nunca Mais was published.

Now that the Executive Summary has revealed a policy of systematic and widespread abuse, the justification by the defenders of torture has returned to the application of the national security doctrine—as it has by critics of the CNV report in Brazil. With the U.S. decision not to identify the architects and perpetrators and a reluctance to prosecute, it appears that justice for its victims will also be long delayed.


  1. i. Wright, Jaime (translator) and Dassin, Joan (editor). 1998 Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments, 1964-1979. Secretly Prepared by the Archdiocese of São Paulo. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  2. ii. Huggins, Haritos-Fatouros and Zimbardo. 2002. Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.