When Torture Wasn’t A Crime

All of us can agree — I hope — that torture is morally abhorrent. But that does not mean that it has always been understood to be a crime.

Today, it is hard to see beyond the idea that torture is a criminal act and that those responsible for it deserve to be punished. This vision has become so ingrained in international law and political discourse that it can seem both obvious and inevitable.

Yet a half century ago, the criminality of torture was far from self evident. Indeed, many on both the left and the right understood torture not as a criminal violation but as a tactic of war, one to be counteracted through violent confrontation. This framing of torture surfaces again and again in my research, but rarely with the clarity of the 1980 interview with guerrilha fighter Reinaldo Guarani that I encountered yesterday in the archives of Rio de Janeiro’s political police.

Like many of his peers in the leadership of Brazil’s student movement, Reinaldo Guarani grew convinced in the late 1960s that the dictatorship that had seized political power in 1964 could be defeated only through force. So Guarani joined the insurgent group Ação Libertadora Nacional and took up arms against the regime. In 1970, he was captured and interrogated by agents of the country’s joint military-police force, DOI-CODI, who repeatedly tortured him. Guarani was eventually released and expelled from the country. The amnesty law passed in 1979 allowed him to return, and occasioned a striking in-depth interview published in Rio’s Tribuna da Imprensa in June 1980.

The former headquarters of DOI-CODI in Rio [From the Ministério Público Federal]

Asked about his experience with torture, Guarani responded:

The torture phase [of my detention] was nothing new, nothing original. From a sociological point of view, it’s understood: they [DOI-CODI] believed we were at war, and we did too. So, when they captured someone from a clandestine organization, they knew they had little time to extract something new about the group. That’s why they hit us so hard in the face, to uncover a meeting point or a safe house. Then came the torture, pau-de-arara [suspension in a stress position], blows, electric shocks, suffocation, palmatória [beatings to the hand with a metal instrument].

These tortures served a function clear to Guarani: to extract from suspected “subversives” as much information as possible. Knowledge of this purpose, he explains, offered seasoned guerrilheiros limited but still meaningful room for counteraction:

[…T]he guy with a little more experience, instead of revealing a meeting point that was still in use, he’d reveal a cold one. That’d give him a three, four hour break. And because the repressors had to go one way or the other to all the places you mentioned, he could even give another cold one that the police would have to investigate. Back then the activity in the jails was immense, incessant; the torturers had to beat everyone as quickly as they could, so they couldn’t get lost in the details.

In just a few sentences, Guarani brings the reader into a terrifying and violent world, one built not on sadism but on the drive to extract the maximal quantity of information from the largest number of people in the least possible time. The frenetic pace of this world is corroborated by many repressors themselves, who in period documents and subsequent interviews repeatedly emphasized the urgency of the first hours of interrogation and the need for “efficiency” above all else. While Guarani does not play down the horror or the power of the torturers’ violence — even the “experienced” militant has to tell her captors something — his emphasis is on the ability of more skillful guerrilheiros to manipulate their interrogators even under conditions of extreme adversity. Sending agents to disused meeting points didn’t just earn a few hours of rest for the victim, it also bought her comrades critical hours to discover that she had been captured and move to safer ground. Indeed, the security practices of insurgent groups were centered on detained militants’ ability to hold out for a specified period of time — often two days — before revealing any “hot” information that could compromise the group.

Nowhere does Guarani indicate that he was not disgusted by DOI-CODI’s deployment of torture — only that he was not surprised. “They believed we were at war,” he explains, “and we did too.” Torture may have been immoral; it may have been a violation of the law of war. But these questions mattered less to Guarani than torture’s use to those employing it — its specific value, in other words, as a tactic of war. Understanding the counterinsurgent information-gathering ends to which torture was employed could give Guarani and his comrades a bit of space to maneuver, granting them a degree of power they could then turn against the regime.

Guarani’s words make the case at the heart of my dissertation more compellingly than I possibly could. The history of torture cannot simply be the history of our abhorrence of it — or we will miss what repressive violence meant to those who lived it, and to the political struggles within which it was deployed.

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