WMC Women Under Siege

Decades later, brutal violence of Operation Condor lingers in Brazil

São Paulo—In April 1973, Claudia Alencar stood before her drama class students at Osvaldo Aranha school in São Paulo, Brazil. Wearing a grey pleated skirt and white blouse, the 22-year-old actress led her teenage and preteen students through acting method exercises with smooth, gentle movements and a calm voice. The day was like any other—until two rough-looking men with machine guns burst into the classroom, put a cloth over Alencar’s head, and dragged her into a car waiting outside the school.

The dramatic abduction led Alencar into the depths of torture and rape perpetrated by Brazil’s military dictatorship, which took over the country in 1964 and held power for just over two decades. For 20 days, she says, she was a political prisoner at Operação Bandeirantes, Bandeirantes Operation (OBAN), an investigation and detention center built by the government of São Paulo state where the army tortured their opponents.

Claudia Alencar as a young activist. (Courtesy of Claudia Alencar)

“I saw my companions dying in front of me,” recalls Alencar, who is now 67 years old. 

OBAN was just one dark corner of many in the broader world of oppressive dictatorships and government-sanctioned torture throughout South America’s Southern cone, united under the umbrella of Operation Condor in 1975. Considered broadly, Operation Condor was the coordinated effort of six South American dictatorial governments, with support from allies abroad, to violently push back against the rising populist, nationalist, and socialist movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. While some of those involved were later held accountable by truth and reconciliation committees and government-led investigations into the brutality, the violence still echoes today.     

Alencar was targeted for her membership in National Liberation Action (ALN), a Brazilian communist guerrilla group founded by Marxist writer Carlos Marighella. She joined the group because she dreamed of a country with more equitable wealth distribution.

“We wanted to provide education for the Brazilian people,” says Alencar. “Brazilians need education, jobs, a [better] health system. Enough is enough.” Although ALN engaged in guerrilla warfare, Alencar says she never took part in such activities, instead focusing on the organization’s ideological and cultural agenda.

Alencar recalls that from the humid cell she shared with four other detained women, it was possible to see part of the OBAN building’s large yard and wall—an obstructed view that nevertheless kept her sane. “If I had been kept in the dark, I would be dead,” Alencar told WMC Women Under Siege in a Skype interview. 

She remembers one of the military men taunting her when she arrived: “Haven’t you been denouncing torture by the dictatorship? Now you are going to see how it is done.” Then, Alencar was forced to watch the torture of her friends. In detention, she developed scotophobia—a fear of the dark.

Before her imprisonment, in 1969, she joined a protest theater group called the “Oppressed News Theater,” inspired by the work of revolutionary Brazilian director and writer Augusto Boal. In the 1970s, Boal founded the Theater of the Oppressed, a form of theater used as an educational tool to propel social movements—and in Alencar’s case, to illustrate the horrors of the dictatorship. Alencar’s plays were performed in the city center, various neighborhoods, and colleges—including the University of São Paolo’s school of medicine, where her acting troupe performed while surrounded by the corpses studied by students to denounce the atrocities perpetuated by the military regime.

In the darkness of OBAN, Alencar and her cellmates endured sexualized torture.

“First came the ‘good cop,’ and later the ‘more or less’ [good cop] who would slap us, [then begin] punching and cursing,” says Alencar as she takes a deep breath, “and, finally, the third one…would put us in the pau-de-arara, open our legs, and electrocute us.” Pau-de-arara, which translates from Portuguese as “macaw’s perch,” evokes the tying of birds’ legs together to a pole for peddling in markets. During the reign of Brazil’s military dictatorship, it took on new meaning as a common method of torture in which a victim is hung from a bar placed behind the victim’s knees, with wrists bound over the legs.

The goal of sexualized torture “is to sow terror among the people so those who are protesting stop and movements become paralyzed,” says American sociologist Laura Carlsen, who directs the Mexico City-based Americas Program, a project of the Center for International Policy, a research and advocacy organization.

In 2012, the Brazilian government established the National Truth Commission (CNV) in an effort to hold the dictatorship responsible for the killings and enforced disappearance of more than 400 people, and the torture of 6,000 more. In a 2014 report, the government chronicled the methods of torture practiced by military personnel in cells and basements of South American dictatorship. The militants employed shocks to the genitals, and blows to the breasts and stomach in an attempt to induce abortions or to damage the reproductive abilities of imprisoned women. They thrust animals and foreign objects into the vagina or the anus–including nightsticks soaked with pepper—and gang-raped female and male detainees.

“The violence suffered was brutal, and rape was used as a weapon of war,” says Brazilian sociologist Débora Figueiredo Mendonça do Prado, professor at the Institute of Economics and International Relations at the Federal University of Uberlândia, in southeastern Brazil, and researcher at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States.

“I don’t recall eating or drinking, I don’t recall anything…all I remember is [the torturers], and that…they got pleasure out of it,” Alencar says.

For years after the torture ended, victims like Alencar kept silent about what had happened to her. When she was released from OBAN, her father picked her up, and the two never spoke a word about her experience. She only exposed her ordeal two years ago in a nighttime talk show. The revelation shocked her children, Yann and Crystal. When Alencar arrived home from the show’s airing, she says 25-year-old Yann silently embraced her as he wept.

“The tremendous brutality and derision they treated women with was calculated to deter not only the individual, but whole communities,” says Carlsen. “In the heart of a macho society, many survivors could not even talk about what happened to them.”

The French and American connection

The Brazilian dictatorship’s dedication to sowing terror among dissidents led them to send military personnel to learn methods of torture from those who knew it best: the French, and the Americans.

The French military collaborated with Brazil by exporting techniques of repression and torture employed during the Algerian War of Independence. Their main “professor” was Paul Aussaresses, a general known for torturing and executing dozens of people during the conflict. In Brazil, Aussaresses was responsible for teaching torture and combat strategies at the War and Jungle Instruction Center (Centro de Instrução de Guerra e Selva; CIGS), in Manaus, in the north of the country. 

“The French relationship in Brazil had a triple purpose,” says Prado. “[To] look for improvements of their torture techniques to combat left-wing movements, to deepen political and military relations with the U.S.,” and to strengthen its presence in French Guiana.

The United States’ role in Operation Condor was intrinsic from the beginning of the Brazilian dictatorship’s rule.  The CIA acted as a powerbroker for the coup d’êtat that spawned the dictatorship, according to declassified documents available in the Library of Congress. The U.S. provided logistical and military support, as well as economic aid to the new regime. Like France, U.S. military personnel supervised by the CIA imparted torture, investigation, and espionage methods to be employed against the resistance. The 2012 Brazilian documentary “The Day that Lasted 21 Years” also shows revealing conversations between President John F. Kennedy and Ambassador Lincoln Gordon on how to destabilize Brazilian President João Carlos Goulart.

“The Cold War in South America was always in part a cover for putting down home-grown insurgency movements that sought more control over natural resources and fairer distribution of wealth,” says Carlsen. Progressive movements abroad posed a threat to U.S. capitalism, she says, as did the possibility of new governments like Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

After perfecting its torture tactics under the tutelage of the U.S. and France, Brazilian leadership went on to export what they had learned to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his army. In 1973, Chile’s national soccer stadium was effectively converted into a concentration camp by Pinochet, housing prisoners of Operation Condor who were rounded up and tortured by military personnel, in some cases using handbooks written in Portuguese—the official language of Brazil. 

“Today, when national borders are considered sacrosanct as a central concept of the anti-immigrant image of the world, it is worth remembering the ways that repressive governments have crossed borders to persecute people,” says Carlsen. “Chasing dissidents across the world became a global witch hunt where enemies of the dictatorships had no rights anywhere.”

Carlsen points out that today the U.S. government still supports right-wing governments in South America, and the sabotage of left-wing leaderships “in a more subtle manner.” For example, in 2017, the U.S. government endorsed the controversial reelection of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez following a vote recount, even though his less conservative opponent was widely believed to have been elected by popular vote.

Lingering violence

The violence of the dictatorship remains embedded in Brazil today. 

“Even today, our police are militarized,” says Prado. “This violence has support from [segments of the] middle class who still accept torture as legitimate. As a result, torture continues to be carried out in the country’s police stations, as well as in attempts to restrain protests in the streets.”

Protesters gather in Rio de Janeiro following the murder of Marielle Franco. (AF Rodrigues)

The most frequent victims of Brazil’s military police are low-income black people. Police violence and torture in the country’s prisons remain rampant, according to Human Rights Watch, and beatings and sexualized violence are still common. The military police act with impunity: Between 2004 and 2015, military police were responsible for 8,466 deaths in Rio de Janeiro alone, according to a 2015 report from Amnesty International.

On March 14, Rio de Janeiro’s only black city councilmember Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were executed in their car. Franco was known as a human rights advocate dedicated to ending the killing of poor and black Brazilians, while also advocating for reform of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State (PMERJ). Just days before her murder, she publicly called out the 41st battalion of the military police for “terrorizing and raping” residents of Acari, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. She was a vocal opponent of the Brazilian army’s federal intervention earlier this year into Rio de Janeiro’s public security, an attempt by President Michel Temer to control the escalating violence promulgated by drug wars. A decree signed by Temer in February permitted the military to intervene and take control of security in the state, in part by overseeing the police–a move some suggest was made by Temer to earn favor with voters frightened by the rise in violent crime. Franco had recently been appointed rapporteur of a watchdog commission assembled to oversee the military intervention.

On February 19, Army Commander General Eduardo Villas Bôas told news outlets that he needed to be able to give his soldiers “guarantees to act without the risk of a new Truth Commission,” referring to the commission that exposed the violence of Operation Condor and held some of its leaders accountable. Such statements, and the violence continually suffered mostly by poor citizens, sounded an alarm through the progressive sectors of Brazilian society, and serve as a reminder of how little has changed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Paragraph 14 has been updated to reflect the full title and name of Débora Figueiredo Mendonça do Prado.

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