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Brazil mass graves offer lessons on Canada’s Indigenous legacy

Forensic archaeology is key to uncovering the grave crimes of the past. But political will is needed for true reconciliation

By: /
23 March, 2022
People holding pictures of persons who were killed or went missing during the 1964-1985 dictatorship, demonstrate on the 55th anniversary of the military coup, at Ibirapuera Park, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 31, 2019. - Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Brazil for the 55th anniversary of the coup that established more than two decades of military rule. Further demonstrations are planned in other cities after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro sparked widespread anger by ordering the defence forces to commemorate the overthrow of President Joao Goulart. (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

When Edson Teles was four years old, he was kidnapped along with his sister, Janaína de Almeida Teles, by the Operação Bandeirante, a body created by the Brazilian army to persecute left-wing activists, before being incarcerated with their parents in December 1972.

In prison, they were forced to watch their parents being tortured.

Now, Teles is the coordinator of the Centre for Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology (CAAF) of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), which is responsible for identifying the remains of guerrillas and civilians who were disappeared and murdered by Brazil’s military junta during two decades of repression and dictatorship, and buried in mass graves.

“It is expected that by the end of April the entire identification process will be completed,” he said, describing a process to identify the victims of a mass grave in a neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial centre.

Several mass graves of Indigenous children were uncovered in Canada in the past few months, bringing to light the barbarity perpetrated by successive Canadian governments against the land’s original population. 

Thousands of kilometres to the south, in Brazil, the mass grave being currently investigated is in the neighbourhood of Perus, in São Paulo, in which the bones of dozens of guerrilla fighters were buried during the junta’s reign. 

After 32 years, the work of identifying the bones of people who disappeared during the Brazilian military dictatorship is coming to an end. In April, all genetic material from 901 boxes containing the remains of 40 people buried in São Paulo’s Dom Bosco Cemetery in Perus will be completely collected and identified.

The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, during which thousands of people were tortured or forced into exile, hundreds were killed and their bodies interred in mass graves. 

But while the genocide of Indigeonous populations in Canada and the forced disappearances and killings of guerrillas fighting a dictatorship in Latin America seem on the surface to have little in common, the excavations in Brazil hold key lessons for Canadians grappling with their nation’s past. 

The methods with which the bodies are exhumed and analysed can help accelerate the process of closure and healing for the victims’ families. But the political and logistical challenges also show the need for countries to reach a form of social and political consensus needed to uncover difficult truths.

Maurício Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said the forensic archaeology techniques used to identify the victims of state repression are growing vastly in importance.

“There is a technical issue, the growing importance of forensic archaeology for excavations of mass graves of victims of human rights violations, such as massacres in wars or political repression,”  he said. “One of the narrative axes of Pedro Almodovar’s [a celebrated Spanish film director] most recent film, ‘Parallel Mothers,’ has as one of the plot threads such an excavation in a Spanish village, in an investigation linked to the civil war.”

“The second point is political, the valorisation of memory, of knowing the details of forgotten victims of this kind of violation, which often involves obtaining information from social groups that have been very marginalised or persecuted, such as Indigenous peoples or political dissidents,” he added.

The mass grave at the Perus cemetery is not a unique case, but it is one that was mired in political obstacles and controversy.

“This search for people who disappeared for political reasons in Brazil intensified during the years of struggle leading up to the Amnesty in 1979,” said Amelinha Teles, a journalist and member of the Commission of Families of the Dead and Disappeared, a former political prisoner, and the mother of Edson Teles, who is working on identifying victims.

“It is permanent research that we do to seek the truth about 436 people who died in the dictatorship during the armed struggle,” she added. “And we discover with sadness that these people died under torture, were kidnapped on the street or at home, were taken to clandestine extermination centres set up by the dictatorship. People were kidnapped, tortured, raped, suffered a lot, sometimes for months.”

Relatives of the dead and disappeared, and those who resisted the dictatorship, have long sought to find the remains of the disappeared.

“The entire community that fought during the dictatorship, that resisted, have always had this claim to find the bones of those who disappeared or were called disappeared – but who we know died at the hands of the state,” said Maurice Politi, a former guerrilla arrested and tortured by the dictatorship and today director of the Nucleus for Preservation of Memory.

“In our daily fight for memory, truth and justice, this is one of the most important points, if not the most important,” he said.

Edson Teles said that his centre had analysed 1,049 boxes with human remains in the course of their work.

First, the remains were sanitized and information was gathered about the people who were believed to have been disappeared in the area. The second stage, he said, was the assembly of the skeletons on a table. 

“We identify sex, age and height, fractures, bullet perforations, dental treatment, etc., to put together a profile of the individual and compare it with the reports of the disappeared,” he said.

Once that second stage was over, they assembled a profile that matched the bones to the individuals before sending the bone samples to the genetics lab. The laboratory that identifies the victims of the ditch in Perus is in the Netherlands. 

“We finished the first and second stage completely, and we profiled the 1,049 boxes, and took samples from 820 individuals,” he added. “Of these, 750 have already been sent to the Netherlands.”

The remains of Dimas Antonio Casemiro were identified in January 2018 and of Aluisio Palhano in December 2018. The remains of Dênis Casemiro, Frederico Antonio Mayr and Flávio de Carvalho Molina have also been identified. With the pandemic the work was suspended and only recently resumed. 

“It is expected that by the end of April the entire identification process will be completed,” he said.

The methods with which the bodies are exhumed and analysed can help accelerate the process of closure and healing for the victims’ families. But the political and logistical challenges also show the need for countries to reach a form of social and political consensus needed to uncover difficult truths.

Gilberto Natalini was a medical student when he was first arrested in 1972. In total he was arrested 17 times and was brutally tortured to the point that he lost part of his hearing. His torturer was Colonel Brilhante Ustra, one of the idols of the current Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the only agent of the dictatorship to have been recognised by the courts as a torturer, even though no punishment has been meted out to him.

He said that Brazil, unlike other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Argentina, “did a half-assed re-democratization. The popular and democratic forces, in particular the left, the two communist parties and the church, mobilised the people against the dictatorship that lasted 21 years. But those who captained the democratic process were the centre-right and they made a pact with the agents of the dictatorship that did not allow them to go deep into the question of justice for those who were persecuted.”

There are a number of difficulties involved in the whole process, explained Edson Teles, among them the lack of political will. 

“The first difficulty has to do with the Brazilian state’s disregard for the identification of political disappeared, which forced the Federal Prosecutor’s Office to intervene and effectively force the state to allow the identification process to start,” he said.

Amelinha Teles, who has participated in the process since the beginning, said that in the early 1990s the then mayor of São Paulo, Luiza Erundina (who had also participated in the resistance to the dictatorship) gave full support to the process of identifying the remains that were found, but when Paulo Maluf, a collaborator with the dictatorship who later became mayor, took over, everything came to a halt. 

Only in 2014 did the work begin anew, while facing constant difficulties and delays – and since Jair Bolsonaro, a right wing populist, took office, he has also tried to undermine the proceedings.

“Between 2014 and 2021 the bones have been treated with great care by the Unifesp,” she said. “Recently, someone bought the house where the CAAF is located and wants them evicted and the building emptied by June 22. The bones and the laboratory are threatened.”

Nevertheless, the process has continued moving forward and is seen as a fundamental step for Brazil to better understand its past and be able to close old wounds. But, Natalini said, “Brazil has regressed.” 

“From the point of view of modernity, from the point of view of democracy, of humanity, Brazil, for some years now, has been regressing in the historical understanding of democracy, of coexistence, of tolerance,” he said.

Politi, the former guerrilla, agreed, adding that “we have a government that does not want to approach this issue – on the contrary, it denies Brazil’s past.”

“What I hope will happen is that a new government with a democratic tendency and that is more committed to the truth will naturally be able to advance this point through resource allocations, through understanding that this is an important issue for healing this disease that is the lack of truth in Brazilian society,” he said.

The struggle for historical memory and truth is an arduous one. It depends on governments willing to deal with the past (or at least not to hinder the process), on volunteers, on family members willing to dedicate their lives to bring justice to their loved ones, be they Indigenous children in Canada or guerrilla fighters in Brazil.

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