The Night of the Generals
“The Face of Evil,” flashed the eye catching headline in Brazil’s major daily on a morning late this March, and the accompanying photo of Army lieutenant-colonel Paulo Malhaes, retired, could not have portrayed a more convincing ogre had it been photoshopped by central casting. Malhaes, a self-described torturer and murderer operated in the early 1970′s, the most repressive period in Brazil’s harsh era of prolonged military rule.
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Paulo Malhaes testifying to torture in the early 1970s
In depositions covering many hours, first recorded by the journalists of O Globo who got the scoop, and then before the Rio de Janeiro State -- and the Brazilian Federal Truth Commission -- Malhaes described in dispassionate but grisly detail how bodies of dissidents who died under torture were disposed of. “There was no DNA at the time; you’ll grant me that, right? So when one was tasked with dismantling a corpse, you had to ask which are the body-parts that will help identify who the person was. Teeth and the fingers alone. We pulled the teeth and cut off the fingers. The hands, no. And that’s how we made the bodies unidentifiable.” After which, the mutilated dead were dumped at sea, having first been eviscerated to prevent them from floating to the surface.
In marking the recently passed 50th anniversary of Brazil’s April 1, 1964 military coup that deposed popularly elected President Joao Goulart, Brazilians have been offered a kaleidoscope of opportunities to revisit and discuss that troubling past, and, for some, to overlay the impact of the dictatorship years on a society restored to democracy for over a generation, but in which the deepest structural problems remain unchanged. Many axes were being ground on these topics in the rich offering of articles and opinion pieces in the daily press as the coup’s anniversary day approached. Very few, of course, sought to defend the dictatorship, which, nonetheless, appears to have been the sole motivation behind Paulo Malhaes’ sudden impulse to seek repeat performances for his macabre confessions on the public stage, an agenda cruelly underscored by his brazen refusal to express remorse or reveal the names of his commanders.
In one bizarre aside, Malhaes confided a disassociated feeling of “solidarity” for the family of Rubens Paiva, a federal deputy allied with Goulart’s party whose murder and disappearance in 1971 Malhaes himself apparently had a hand in. It was “sad,” the colonel said, that Paiva’s family had to wait 38 years to learn the specifics of his fate, already made public from other sources. Malhaes quickly insisted that his comment not be interpreted as “sentimentality.” He hadn’t questioned his mission back then, and he still didn’t. “There was no other solution. They [my superiors] provided me with a solution,” written broadly enough for Malhaes to justify his butchery.