The Armed Left Confronts Torture: São Paulo, 1970

Planning has its limits, in historical research as in life. This has never been clearer to me than at the archive where I’ve been spending most of my time these past three months, the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP), where receiving the wrong box late one Friday afternoon opened a path to understanding a critical but seemingly inaccessible dimension of the past.

APESP, I’ve mentioned before, houses the voluminous files of the state’s political police, the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social, or DEOPS. Extant from 1924 to 1983, this police force produced hundreds of thousands of pages on groups and individuals linked — according to DEOPS, at least — to communism or other forms of subversion. Miraculously, the documents are open to researchers with virtually no restrictions — beyond, that is, the difficulty of navigating them. Unlike the fully text-searchable Paraguayan police archives to which I dedicated last October, the DEOPS files can be accessed only through the name-based index built by their creators, making it easy to reconstruct, but hard to escape, the repressive logic of DEOPS itself.

Understanding these constraints, I’d arrived with a list of names to follow through the archive. I kept to this plan for the first week, and it yielded some insights. Thanks to the kind suggestions of those who know the files well, I was able to hone in on documents sent to DEOPS from the São Paulo unit of the joint military-police intelligence operations system know as DOI-CODI, responsible for a disproportionate share of the dictatorship’s worst violence. These DOI-CODI files illuminate the counter-revolutionary constructs and operational patterns that guided the repression, but they do little to clarify the meanings of torture for those who lived it most acutely.

At the end of my first week at APESP, however, my archival fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. That Friday, about two hours before closing time, I received a folder one code away from the document I’d requested. As it was already sitting in front of me, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give the folder a quick glance before I took it back.

The contents of the folder didn’t look anything like the documents I had been requesting. Instead of standardized third-person accounts of endless interrogation sessions, it was brimming with hard-to-read copies of notebooks, letters, and pamphlets — papers that DOI-CODI had seized, I soon learned, from the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária, or VPR. One of the armed revolutionary groups to emerge from the post-coup shakeup of the Brazilian Communist Party, the VRP set out in 1969 to build an insurgent training camp in the south of São Paulo state, led by former Army captain and famed insurgent Carlos Lamarca. The facility, located in the fertile Vale do Ribeira, was operational for ten months. But in May 1970, following leads provided under torture by captured VPR militants, security forces learned of the camp’s location and quickly encircled it with a force of thousands. A small band of militants, including Lamarca, managed to escape, enabling the group to carry on until, battered by ongoing repression, the VPR dissolved itself in 1971.

Lamarca training a VPR militant in the Vale do Ribeira. [From the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo.]
One of the escapees was Yoshitane Fujimori, who returned to São Paulo to continue organizing. In December 1970, he and fellow guerrilheiro Edson Quaresma were spotted by DOI-CODI operatives and gunned down as they tried to escape in Fujimori’s car. The documents I was looking at, it turned out, had been in the vehicle at the time of the killing. Among them were letters, records of internal debates, self-critical evaluations, and notes from strategy sessions; taken together, they offered an unvarnished look at a persecuted insurgent group’s attempts to counteract and overcome the devastating effects of widespread interrogatory torture.

Given this context, it is hardly surprising that the documents seized from Fujimori’s car paint torture, above all, as a threat — it was, a letter from April 1970 states, the regime’s “most efficient weapon to combat us.” The Vale do Ribeira camp fell, the group understood, because of comrades who had talked under extreme physical duress. These militants had been unable to resist weeks of torture, the VPR concluded, because they had not managed to commit themselves sufficiently to the cause, to fully extinguish the internalized liberalism that led them to treason. Only “daily combat” against the individualistic enemy lurking within could constrain the torturers’ power.

Yet while torture was the dictatorship’s most effective weapon, it was also one that the VPR hoped to turn against the very regime employing it. The group’s most powerful tools for consciousness-building and recruitment, one leader wrote in November 1970, were agitation and propaganda, and nothing made for agitprop like direct accounts of torture. “For example,” the leader wrote, “an agitator could demonstrate at the entrance to a factory, speaking to hundreds of workers, denouncing the brutal repression in the [regime’s] treatment of political prisoners. This should be detailed, citing the most brutal concrete cases, such as the death under torture of a comrade they know.”

The reach of this anti-torture agitprop, the VPR believed, should not be limited to Brazil itself. Some “honest liberals” abroad had begun to investigate systematic torture by the regime, a practice that had deepened in the wake of the December 1968 “coup within a coup” that pushed the dictatorship far to the right. These liberal denunciations were a good sign, another writer posited in October 1970; the regime needed to be attacked on all fronts, and international denunciation of state repression was a promising one. Indeed, as early as June 1970, the VPR had written a report titled “Sequestro e Tortura” (Kidnapping and Torture), to lend further force to the growing wave of condemnation from abroad.

Two hours with these papers on a Friday afternoon were sufficient to convince me that if I wanted to understand what torture meant to the groups grappling with it most immediately, I would have to read more documents like the ones I had just seen. Fortunately, leads have a way of generating more leads, and painstaking work over subsequent months led me to dozens more documents addressing torture, from the VPR as well as several other insurgent groups. These documents include descriptions of organized campaigns to denounce torture at home and abroad, to prepare individual militants to resist it in detention, and to come to grips with its effects once released. They offer, in sum, a window onto understandings of torture that overlapped in certain ways, but differed in many other crucial ones, from those of the “honest liberals” who would soon come to dominate discussions of state violence in Latin America and beyond. All but absent from the academic literature until now, this is a perspective that only period documents can reconstruct — an operation now possible thanks to one of the most fortuitous mistakes to which I’ve ever been party.

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