Brazilian General steps in to “hide the bodies”

The Brazilian military dictatorship might not have been very good at building dams or highways, but it was excellent at hiding bodies. Is this why Bolsonaro appointed an army general with no medical experience as Minister of Health in the middle of its worst pandemic in a generation?

By Brian Mier

In 2005 I worked at for an NGO which had a program in Perus, a working class neighborhood on the far Northwest side of São Paulo. One day as the local manager drove me to lunch we passed an empty field on top of a hill. “This is the famous boneyard of Perus,” she told me. She was was so surprised I’d never heard of it that she stopped the car. “This is one of the places where the military hid bodies during the dictatorship. When they started digging here in 1990 they found over 1000 bodies.” We got out and she showed me a plaque that was erected by Mayor Luiza Erundina in 1990 which reads:

“On this spot, the dictators tried to hide the dissapeared, the victims of political repression, hunger, police violence, death squads and, above all, the rights of the poor citizens of São Paulo. Let it be registered that crimes against freedom will always be revealed.”

“This seems like more than the total number of disappearances in the entire dictatorship,” I said.

She gave one of those humorless laughs that could only come from someone old enough to have remembered that era. “Their official number only refers to middle class professionals and university students. There were 31 of them found here and they say there might be another 50. The rest were poor people killed by the military police and the death squads.”

It used to be common to see foreign journalists refer to the Brazilian military dictatorship as “lighter” than those in countries like Argentina and Chile and use the figure of several hundred dissapearances to justify this depiction. This shows a lack of understanding of Brazilian race and class issues. The government’s admission that hundreds of political prisoners were assassinated refered primarily to middle-class whites. State sponsored massacre and torture of thousands of Afro-Brazilians, peasants and indigenous peoples that took place during the regime was not considered political. Therefore, human rights atrocities like death squad assassinations of poor community leaders or the 1968 murder of 2000 members of the Waimiri-Atroari indigenous tribe, mowed down by machine gun fire while the military “cleaned” their territory for highway construction, are not usually included in the political murder tally.

Perus is just one of the boneyards. During 6 years living on the periphery of São Paulo I have heard dozens of stories about these macabre locations, scattered accross the periphery. As any working class Paulistano will tell you, however, the biggest boneyards of all are the reservoirs on the North and South sides of the metropolitan area where, to this day, the military police torture and execute their victims and dump bodies. Stories about this are regularly reported on the crime pages of the local papers and through word of mouth. I’ve seen mothers warn their teenage sons to be careful at night so that they don’t end up in in the reservoir. It’s not an urban legend. Last year it happened to the 14 year old neighbor of a friend and also the West African immigrant boyfriend of a coworker’s hairdresser, who was pulled out of a taxi at a police roadblock early one Sunday morning and never heard from again until his wallet washed up on the shore of Billings reservoir weeks later.

During the dictatorship, the legalized Military police death squads like the BOPE in Rio de Janeiro and ROTA in São Paulo learned all about hiding bodies down to the smallest details like, “cut their stomachs open before dumping them in the water so they don’t float”, as one former military police officer says in Teresa Jessouroun’s documentary, A Queima Roupa. While the military police learned how to carry out the manual tasks, their higher ups learned how to mask the numbers. As I learned while doing research for a Vice/HBO production about crime in Rio de Janeiro, there are a variety of statistical categories that are shuffled around by the military police in order to raise or lower the official homicide rate according to the political whims of the time, such as “violent death of undetermined cause” and “missing persons”. During the lead up to the World Cup, Governor Cabral (PMDB) prided himself on the drop in the murder rate, but the number of violent deaths of undetermined cause increased significantly. During the lead up to the the 2017 military occupation of Rio, the murder rate climbed again, but other numbers dropped.

On May 15, after losing his second Health Minister in less than one month, due in part to their refusal to support his plan to reopen commerce, send everyone back to work and give them all free chloroquine, President Bolsonaro appointed Army General Eduardo Pazuello as interim Health Minister. It was the first time since the end of the dictatorship that someone who was not a doctor or had no public health management experience was appointed to the post.

Last Wednesday, as daily deaths broke the 1000 mark, the Health Ministry’s Covid 19 information website went off the air. For the first time since the pandemic began the government delayed releasing its nightly Covid 19 data until after the most popular nightly news broadcast, Jornal Nacional, had finished, in a pattern which has repeated itself every night since.

The next day, when the Covid 19 website went back on the air, it only showed numbers for the previous 24 hours of infections and deaths. All cumulative data was missing. The Health Ministry announced that it was going to keep it that way and also reanalyze how it was counting official cases of Covid 19 infection, which have already been estimated at 7 times lower than real numbers through a scientific study involving random sampling of 25,000 people in 90 cities. That night I spent an hour online looking for São Paulo’s previous week’s mortality numbers discriminated by day and could not find them anywhere.

Former President Dilma Rousseff immediately cried foul. On her blog she wrote, “hiding official data, concealing data which should be in the public domain, is a typical tactic of authoritarian regimes such as the Brazilian military dictatorship, which attempted to conceal a rise in deaths from meningitis. It was a failure and this ill-fated attempt is remembered to this day. Performing a recount of the dead in the current context constitutes the crime of hiding cadavers and is a sad memory for those who, during the military dictatorship, lost friends and relatives to assassinations which were never admitted to by the state.”

The Brazilian military might not have been very good at building dams or highways but it was excellent at hiding bodies. Is this why Bolsonaro appointed an army general with no medical experience as Minister of Health in the middle of its worst pandemic in a generation?


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.