July 27, 2014

By Giulia Ricco

The Fifa Fun Fests all over Brazil are being dismantled: the last stretch of the beach in Copacabana will now become accessible again to the public, as will the square in Anhangabaú, São Paulo. It’s all a bit like the Julius Cesar veni, vidi, vici. Fifa came, enclosed and appropriated those public spaces, adorned them all around with Polícia Militar, and then left, taking everything down and, leaving nothing behind. Many Brazilians rejoice in knowing that the World Cup is over. Everything now can go back to normal, since after that epic defeat no one really wants to remember. And, as a matter of fact, forgetting won’t be too hard since this World Cup didn’t leave any structural legacies (other than, of course, the stadiums). This politics of forgive and forget is nothing new to Brazil, after all the same process happened after the dictatorship. As long as things go back to “normal”, back to that “ordem e progresso”, then everything is good. However, just as the World Cup left its stadium behind, which stand as the visible marks of the extravaganza that these 4 weeks have been, the dictatorship left its own visible markers behind: buildings that bear  the exception and excess that lasted 21 years.

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The former DOI-CODI building.

One of those lieux de memoire is the intact DOI/CODI building in São Paulo. The DOI/CODI, which stands for Destacamento de Operações de Informações- Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna, was the product of the 1969 military operation called Operação Bandeirantes. Its job was to repress dissidents of the military regime through imprisonment, torture, and murder. Official documentation regarding the activities of the DOI/CODI is scarce. The one in São Paulo was the first one created, in 1969, in Rua Tutoia 921, across the backyard of the Police Station. Strategically located (the army quartel is just a couple of blocks away), the DOI/CODI tortured and killed at least 52 people. Thanks to Professor Rebecca Atencio of Tulane University, who generously let me participate in a visit to the building with her class, I was able to skip the rigid bureaucratic process required to access this space of violence, which, in my opinion, should be open to the public.

Assessor Deborah Regina Leal Neves accompanied us through the four buildings and backyard that constitute the area referred to as Antigas Instalações do DOI-CODI. She, together with several ex-political prisoners, such as Maurice Politi, (who also participated in this visit), are in charge of the commission who asked for the tombamento (preservation) of this area. She explained that, since DOI-CODI existed at the limits of legality, there are no official maps or drawings of this area. Since 2012, when this process of rehabilitation started, Deborah has led various groups of ex-political prisoners, all from different years, passed the Police Station and into the backyard in order to reconstruct the functions of each building. Each one of them remembered something different, holding a piece of the puzzle that eventually resulted in the unanimous approval of tombamento given at the beginning of 2014. To define this site of memory, beside the recollections of prisoners who were held here, they used aero-photos and written sources such as articles and books. The main building of DOI-CODI, where the military police practiced torture and where they took the infamous Vladimir Herzog’s picture, is now used as a warehouse by the police. This area is then  constituted by a yard, which, since it was the first thing the prisoners would see after being captured, has been the most remembered, then three main buildings. The first one is where the tortures occurred, the second one, adjacent, was the lodging of the officials, and the last one, were the prisoners where, is now the location of the DECAP, Polícia Judiciária da Capital and is part of the police station.


One of the smaller rooms on the second floor.

In order to get inside the first building you have to nimbly overcome a pile of paper, ink cartridges and boxes of printers: the paradox of the scarce existence of written material about DOI-CODI. You pass through a small door and there are two identical floors. On the left side there is a larger room, on the right you can count four smaller rooms and one bathroom. Some of the smaller rooms have electrical outlets, which probably make them the rooms that hosted the cadeira de dragão. There are windows on both floors, looking out on the residential buildings that surround this area. The neighbors knew about this place, hearing the screams and the cries of the people being tortured, but, since its existence was not official, very little could have been done. The original wooden floor is now covered in tiles: the ground is one of the main details that the ex-prisoners remember, together with the stairs.

By the time we arrived on the second floor I noticed that we were under the supervision of an officer, who apparently has been with us since the beginning of the visit. He was wearing civilian clothes, with a gun tucked into his belt. His presence puzzled me: whose security was he ensuring? After all, we were a group of foreign students interested in learning more about the history of his country. The building is empty, there isn’t anything that could be stolen or that needs extra security. Only later I found out that the relationship between those at the Police Station and those who advocate for transforming the DOI-CODI building into a place of memory has not been an easy one. Sadly, many police officers believe that what happened within those 4 walls was right and they do not see the outrageous violation of human rights that the whole operation in fact was. That is why there is still not a definitive plan for this lieux de memoire.

This is where the cars with the prisoners would enter (the gate was closed by the time we got there).

This is where the cars with the prisoners would enter (the gate was closed by the time we got there).

The community does not want the police to leave the neighborhood, while many ex-political prisoners believe that the police should leave altogether. What I know for sure is that this building cannot be used as a warehouse anymore. It needs to tell the narrative of those who were tortured and killed there. The police should stay and come to terms with the atrocities that happened there; they should end with their absurd negation process that-de facto-has accompanied the crimes committed during the dictatorship since 1985.

The challenge with the creation of a space of memory (of this kind) is not only to identify a form able to convey the violations of human rights committed there, but also to make the public want to know more about it. The Memorial da Resistência here in São Paulo, which was the location of DOPS, Departmento da Ordem Política e Social, was able to create an accessible narrative: it is free and it is easy to navigate. Moreover, there are educators who gave a tour of the exhibition precisely focused on human rights, integrating the idea of resistance, dictatorship and citizenship in a an interactive presentation, targeting the audience in front of them. While the Memorial da Resistência offers an overview of the history of the republic, with a focus that is primarily based on education, the DOI-CODI should become a site which aims to commemorate the victims. However, the form in which the message is conveyed is crucial. It cannot simply be a plaque on the wall or on the floor.

Totem at the entrance of the Parque da Juventude (Carandiru).

Totem at the entrance of the Parque da Juventude (Carandiru).

What has been done to the original site of the Prison Carandiru (where in 1992 more than one hundred prisoners rebelled and were brutally killed by the police) should not be the example to follow: once you exit the metro station Carandiru on your right, you find yourself in front of an empty park called Parque da Juventude and the library Biblioteca São Paulo. On my visit to the site, I encountered a Military Police van at the entrance of the park. One of the officers asked me if I was lost. There were no signs or cardboards narrating the massacre. I thought that maybe, further into the park I was going to find a statue, a mark, something that remembered what happened here. I did find a bell, which looks like one of the mission bells from California, engraved with the sigla “paz” (peace). It is important to mention that the full name of the park is “Parque da Juventude e portal do futuro” (Park of the youth and the gateway to future). Still in search of any mention regarding the history of Carandiru, I went to the library to see if I could check its collection, but it was closed. Which made me wonder, a future for whom?

Once the squabble about the DOI-CODI building is over, it will be interesting to see which form this space of memory will take. Yes, I originally came to Brazil to research the literature about the dictatorship, but during these past 8 weeks I realized that the main issue is the form through which this context is conveyed. The ugly truth is that people do not want to hear about the tortures that the DOI-CODI inflicted on political prisoners, and I do not blame them. My main interest was to investigate a growing trend in testimonial literature in which the family of the victim becomes the narrator and advocates for human rights through literature. However, I realized that what is interesting is the empathy that those familial narratives establish with the readers. I believe that the further step in my research will be reflect in which ways the implication of a familial bound makes the representation of violence more (or less) successful compared to other narratives in the so called “post-violence” era.