by Matheus Leitão
Writer Matheus Leitão Netto travels across Brazil, from Brasīlia to the coastal city of Vítoria, to find the man who betrayed his parents, leading to their arrest and torture. Filmmaker Eduardo Gomes assists in documenting the journey.
My memory of the moment I first learned my father’s story is vague. It was after dinner. We sat on a couch in our Brasília home, dense with history books, political treatises, and family photographs. It was 1989, the eve of Brazil’s first presidential election since the fall of the military dictatorship. I was only 12 years old, and still ignorant of the darker things in the world. Maybe that’s why I’d never thought to ask (or even suspected) if there might be a story, an essential part of our history, behind the grim words and oblique references my parents tossed out piecemeal.
Prison. Persecution. Basements. My mother’s occasional references to having been incarcerated.
Perhaps because I was just a child, or perhaps because no one had ever connected all the dots for me, these brief glimmers of bleakness never sank in. I couldn’t imagine the reality of such abstract horrors.
Yet that day, for reasons I didn’t understand, my father, Marcelo Amorim Netto, sat me down to tell me my family’s story — the story of how he and my mother, Miriam Leitão, wound up imprisoned, her for three months and him for thirteen (including nine months in solitary confinement in Rio de Janeiro in his case), by the Brazilian government.
That day on the couch, he was a 39-year-old journalist, an average man (I’d assumed) on the cusp of middle age with thinning hair and a bald patch. But 20 years earlier, in 1969, he explained, he was a scruffy, long-haired student. The son of lower-middle class parents (a civil servant and a housekeeper), he’d worked his way up to become the president of the Medical School Student Union at the Federal University of Espírito Santo in the city of Vitória with high hopes of becoming a doctor.
Yet at the same time as my father was working his way towards a career in medicine, his country was descending into a martial dystopia. In 1964, a military coup ousted the democratically elected President João Goulart with the support of many civilians increasingly disenchanted with the direction of Brazilian politics and eager for structure and reform. Masquerading military officials as representative political appointees, the military spent a few years building up their institutional control, but by 1968 they’d closed down the already neutered congress and the country came under the effectively absolutecontrol of a heavy-handed junta. Starting that year, rights began to erode rapidly as waves of censorship, extralegal arrests, torture, and executions swept across the nation, resulting in400 deaths and disappearances. It was clear that the government was especially targeting populist, leftist, and Marxist groups — the ideological foes of and main opposition to the far-right junta.
The exact rationale for these crackdowns and the nature of the horrors visited upon those disappeared into military barracks was then (as now) largely mysterious. The military, which was, thanks to amnesty laws, was never purged after the dictatorship and continues on today in much the same form as it did at the time of the junta, claims that they destroyed their most detailed records just before popular demonstrations ousted the last dictatorial president in 1985, after 21 years of authoritarian rule. The 1989 direct elections following the dictatorship fully restored democracy to the nation, but almost everyone involved in the worst crimes of the dictatorship (even known torturers) escaped justice and punishment in the tumult of lost documents, tight-lipped silence, and reconciliation.
Facing this uncertainty and erosion of rights and freedoms, many youths in the late ‘60s were drawn to the promised liberation and utopian equality of Marxist ideologies, which flew around the Brazilian underground. The country’s universities incubated such beliefs, allowing cadres of the likeminded to find each other and coalesce into clandestine leftist cells and parties. Inspired by the David and Goliath guerilla story of Mao Zedong in China, many of these groups were eager to battle the reigning regime head-on, waging war from the shadows of the nation for a brighter future.
In 1969, at the height of the regime’s brutality, my father, wading knee-deep in these Marxist ideologies, had decided to join a militant cell, entering the struggle in perhaps its most challenging hour. One evening, he set out onto the streets of Vitória by night, tense with apprehension, to have his first ever meeting with the local leader of the Communist Party of Brazil, the martial, Maoist variant of the more staid Brazilian Communist Party. Their meetings constantly shifted for secrecy and security, but that night’s was in the town of Cariacica, just northwest of the city. That night, my father would officially join the revolution.
The communist leader’s name was strange. It sounded Arabic, or maybe Latin. As soon as my father mentioned it, I became fixated, repeating it over and over, asking if I’d pronounced it correctly. His name was Foedes. And though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a name that would haunt my dreams and dog me through my waking and working life for the next two decades.
When my father first met Foedes, he went by another name: Zé. This was the older man’s nom de guerre in the communist uprising. And that first night he granted my father his own codename, a baptism into the communist struggle to define him and protect his real identity from then on.
“From now on,” Foedes said. “Your codename will be Mateus.”
Mateus. That was my name, just missing an “h.” I was a fish with a hook deep in my cheek. I could wriggle and writhe, but the story — the tale of my name — had me on the line, and it was pulling me further. This was my parents’ story, but it was the story of me as well.
My father only told me so much on his own. But in the days and weeks and months that followed our first conversation, I needled and cajoled him, pressing for more information. I wanted to know what he’d done in the revolution, what he’d fought for. But most importantly, I wanted to know why and how he and my mother (codename Amélia, recruited into the Party by my father in 1971, by which time he’d taken on a leadership role but before they’d started dating) had been imprisoned in their struggle for freedom and democracy.
The why was simple, really: The Communist Party they served was illegal and engaged in armed resistance against the authoritarian regime. Eager to learn more about the networks of leftist organizations and shape of the Party in the nation, and unsure of what my parents knew or had done, they refrained from killing them, instead deciding to torture them for information on their still-hidden co-conspirators.
But the how was shocking: Rather than being beaten down and cornered or discovered through some fault of their own, my father said that he and his comrades been given up by one of their own.
Three to five days before my father’s arrest, another Espírito Santo communist had been caught. No one knew of his arrest at the time — they only realized it when, days later, almost all of the state’s 30-some communists from across multiple cells and several leaders of the Party’s national command in Rio were all caught. (My mother and father were nabbed at the same time, near their house; they didn’t know why at the time.) Some were able to flee, but most were dragged down to Fort São Francisco Xavier da Barra in the coastal town of Vila Velha, just north of Vitória. One of the first Portuguese garrisons built in the country in the 16th century, then as now it served as the military headquarters of the Brazilian Army’s 38th Infantry Battalion. But at the time many of its rooms were used not just for housing soldiers, but for torturing dissidents.
There they all saw one of their comrades being escorted about by soldiers. They learned that he, a man who knew all of their true identities and those of several nationwide leaders, had been the first of them to be captured. And unlike the rest of them, by now beaten and bloodied, he looked entirely unscathed. The communists ruminated on this and eventually reached an inevitable and firm consensus: as soon as this comrade had been arrested, he must have squealed, giving up every name he know before the cops could land a blow on him and in so doing dooming the state’s communists and delivering a severe blow to the Rio leadership as well.
He was, my father insisted (and every surviving Espírito Santo communist believes), a coward. And his cowardice landed them all in prison, then sent them off to days of torture and months of confinement thereafter.
I pressed my father to tell me who’d betrayed them. And he told me with grim and absolute certainty: It was Foedes. The man who gave both of us our names.
A little later, I asked my mother why she and my father had chosen to name me Matheus. Her eyes lit up with a mixture of pride and conviction. On the day I was born, she told me, my father asked her what they ought to call me as he held me in his arms for the first time.
“Matheus, of course,” she replied immediately (adding an “h” to the old codename for easier pronunciation).
There was no debate. My father understood the choice. That name had been with them since they met.
15 days later, I suffered my first asthma attack and was whisked off to a neonatal intensive care unit. I was strong and soon I was back in my parents’ arms. Yet throughout my childhood, I often wound up getting jabbed with adrenaline shots as I was rushed to the emergency room with breathing complications. These days, I can appreciate an entire day spent in silence, because my breath alone is worth hearing.
By 20, my asthma had subsided, but it left me with a pigeon chest and a slightly uneven gait. But during my teenage years, whenever I had an attack (which was a fairly regular occurrence), my mind wandered back to my father’s story. I’d think of the suffocation my parents must have felt in their prison cells. I’d think about them young, helpless, and totally dominated by their jailors.
Those days, after the candor of our first real discussion, my parents only ever mentioned the dictatorship and their suffering when I asked them about it directly, which I did not often do. I didn’t understand my parents’ secrecy — that it was dignified reserve rather than hurt silence. But snippets came to light here and there. In 1995, when I was 18 years old, my father’s brother, Uncle Márcio, told me about the time he met my father in prison. Towards the end of our conversation, Márcio brought up a terrifying word: Torture. It had been mentioned often, but only in passing and disjointed snippets.
Fierce blows. Ferocious dogs. Snakes in a dark room. The sexual abuse of my mother, then pregnant with my older brother Vladimir. Unannounced visitations and death threats in the dead of night. Kicks and beatings. Russian roulette. Trips to Rio hogtied beside their comrades. Nine endless months in solitary confinement. Hunger strikes for access to censored newspapers and radio broadcasts. Desperate bids to keep a shred of sanity.
“I can kill you now,” a blue-eyed soldier said to my mother as he cocked a pistol near her head one night in 1972. She was just 19 at the time. “You know that?
“Yes,” she replied. “You can.”
I pieced the remaining details of my parents’ story together over the years. But even with all these facts, I felt an absence of meaning. There was no definitive account. There were only murmurs between quiet parents and an inquisitive son. I couldn’t make it all cohere, not fully. That may have been for the best, because this was not the sort of thing young people should know, let alone a child. But still, I wondered.
Often as I heard these horrific details, my mind wandered back to Foedes. Once a figure of authority in Espírito Santo’s communist underworld, respected and admired by all, I couldn’t square his betrayal. I couldn’t understand why he’d be so willing to turn on my parents and make them suffer to save his own hide. I couldn’t understand a brutal dictatorship’s power to pervert brotherhood.
It made me angry and nauseated. I’d often cry alone in the shower, often. It gripped my mind for years, yet I never told anyone, not even my parents, how much the betrayal affected me. Whenever I felt weak, it would strike, and I’d be back in the 1970s, trying to find out everything I could about that world and the man who made it.
What was he like?
“Why do you want to know?” everyone asked me.
The questions often annoyed my father, who tried to divert my attention.
But despite his protests, here’s what I learned: Foedes was an average man. Around 30 years old, he was dark-skinned and short — stocky, but not overweight. He wasn’t particularly handsome. His eyes were brown. His hair was curly. He was older than most of the students who made up the leftist movement in the region.
Yet no one knew where Foedes was now. It confounded me. Given how certain they were that he had rolled on them, and all the bitterness they’d felt towards him as they endured their torture, I couldn’t understand why none of his militant comrades had tracked him down after their release.
Maybe he’d faced retribution from an unnamed comrade or from the state. Maybe he’d simply vanished as so many things did under the dictatorship. All I knew was that the last time anyone saw him was that day at the fort in Vila Velha when they conceived of his guilt. After that, none of his comrades ever saw him again.
Yet I couldn’t leave Foedes in the mists of history. I needed to know if he was alive. I needed to know if he’d suffered as my parents had. I needed to know if there’d been justice for their torture. I needed to find Foedes.
Crosses And Doors.
I remember the first time my father told me that he’d thought about killing Foedes. On a sabbatical in 2000, after becoming a successful journalist, he’d rented an apartment in New York from the influential Brazilian artist and pundit Arnaldo Jabor, intending to study English. He invited me, then 23 years old, to join him for three months.
At the time, my father constantly listened to the Buena Vista Social Club, whose eponymous album had been released three years earlier. Every morning, he’d blare it and I’d listen. It was like being transported back to the 1970s. He’d turn the volume way up. “Mi alma, muy triste y pesarosaaaaaaaa,” sang the Cuban voices.
One morning, those familiar rhythms were interrupted by a loud bang. The reverberation of the speakers had shaken the walls so hard that they’d knocked down a precious work of art. It was a ceramic cross, the size of an iPad, with an iron hanging hook, slightly rusted, on the back. It looked like a relic from the 16th century, and accordingly expensive. Yet the fall had split it in half.
My father looked stunned — wide-eyed like a mischievous child. He still makes faces like that unwittingly.
That song (ironically entitled “Silence”) and that broken cross brought my father and I closer together as we struck out in search of ceramic glue. After we found the paste and got home, my father was nervous, but happy. We tried to use just a bit to hide the split, but it was still apparent. So we turned to instant cappuccino mix — the kind that never really dissolves in water and tastes more of chemicals than coffee. I figured, in a stroke of genius, that if we put some of the ghastly powder on the cross, right over the crack, it might mask the fissure and still look natural. And somehow it worked.
“Phew, bottoms up!” my father said, as we opened a bottle of wine to celebrate. Then he opened himself up.
“When I left prison, I wanted to kill Zé,” he told me, apropos of nothing. “It was only fair. We were jailed and tortured, but some of the others died”.
He meant Carlos Nicolau Danielli and Lincoln Cordeiro Oest, the two highest-ranked members of the Party’s national, central command in Rio. He and his comrades believed that Foedes had given up their names and locations as well as those of their own local cells, leading to their imprisonment, torture, and eventual death. The main links between the urban center of the Party and its rural, armed wings, their deaths (alongside the elimination of an entire state’s cells) were a dire blow to the very foundations of the organization.
Later that night, my father told me how Danielli and Oest trained him in 1971 for combat in the Araguaia Guerrilla War. An uprising modeled on the experience of Mao and of earlier and concurrent rural Brazilian leftist uprisings, Party militants from all over the country had converged upon the Araguaia River Basin in what is now the state of Tocantins starting in 1967 to launch their all-out war on the regime. Until it was crushed in 1974, it was the centerpiece of the Party’s armed, rural resistance.
The two men treated him well. Then on 18 October 1971, just as my father set out to war, he met my mother. It was National Doctors’ Day and my father, as a student leader, had organized a show by the protest singer and songwriter Sérgio Ricardo in Vitória, which my mother attended. They fell for each other fast, dating secretly at first but coming out about their relationship by January 1972.
By 1973, they were both in prison.
But back in 1972, my father told Danielli and Oest about his love for this woman. Danielli was a 41-year-old man with dark skin, thin but now scrawny. Oest, 63 years old and affectionately known as the “Old Man,” was a tireless Marxist orator. A 1927 star on the Rio soccer club Flamengo’s roster and former deputy in the lower house of the Brazilian congress, he now preferred communist dialectics to calisthenics and moaned about Rio’s heat. When it was too warm, he’d show up at activist cells to speak wearing only a pair of tighty whiteys. Already a communist in 1935, he’d participated in the Intentona Comunista that year: an abortive leftist coup against the government of Getúlio Vargas, a civilian dictator who’d come to power in a 1930 revolution (and eventually resigned in 1945). My father had been a disciple of both of their teachings, traveling to clandestine apartments in Rio for lectures. He also had real affection for the men, and they for him.
After hearing my father’s story, they decided to give my father some time to think before heading off to a war zone. It was a warmth that contradicted the dictatorship’s image of communists as hard bastards who’d swiftly and harshly punish those who hesitated to fight. But that’s all I learned that night, as when the wine finished, so did our trip into the 1970s. Our conversations on that time often ended abruptly. But this time, before we took our leave for the night, my father repeated his verdict once more. Foedes deserves death.
I returned from New York reaffirmed in the conviction that I needed to find Foedes and finish putting together my parents’ story. I wasn’t sure how my parents would react if I told them I wanted to chase Foedes, but I didn’t want to risk them asking me not to push forward, so I started digging into the national archives in secret.
At the time, Brazil didn’t have a Freedom of Information Act. That grace only came into being in 2012, during the first term of Dilma Rousseff’s presidency. Back then, anyone looking for historical records had a door slammed in his face. My first trip to a state archive ended after two minutes, just after they asked if I was looking for personal data.
No. Documents about the dictatorship, even unclassified information, were under heavy lock and key, held by the military courts, which sought to protect the scant, possibly damning information still extant. I’d found a few military files as a young journalist, writing stories about that era, but nothing relevant. Still, I was always secretly looking, in stories on the Araguaia, for my parents’ past, eternally pulled by that hook in my cheek.
Even when I wasn’t looking for them, stories wound up on my doorstep. It happened often enough while I was at the Correio Braziliense, Brasília’s main daily, that I became something of an in-house dictatorship specialist. In 2004, after co-authoring a series about the Araguaia, I was asked to cover an excavation looking for vanished guerrillas out on the river basin. For 15 days, I followed a few Argentine forensic archaeologists, a group that had identified the corpse of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, into the jungle in search of bones. We failed to find any remains, but deep in the Amazon, the scars of the unmatched conflict were still evident. We found bullets from the machine guns used by 5,000 soldiers sent into the region to weed out just 80 guerrillas.
I brought home one of the bullets — and the tears of a woman named Diva, who’d come with us looking for the body of her sister, Dinaelza Santana Coqueiro, also known as “Mariadina,” one of dozens of guerrilla martyrs. I’d recently spoken to someone from the area who told me he’d seen part of the woman’s corpse in a shallow grave there, 30 years beforehand. That just made our failure to find Mariadina, and Diva’s sorrow, even more poignant for me.
I gave the bullet to my father, as a token of his survival where others had fallen. But I keep Diva’s tears with me to this day, as a constant reminder of the pain of the unpunished crimes of the dictatorship’s murderers.
Two weeks later, I restarted my own quest. My mother told me she remembered being photographed soon after her capture for an arrest report. I fixated on finding those photos. Maybe I could find images of their fellow militants as well, who they recalled so fondly, like our close family friends: journalist Jorge Luiz de Souza (codename Onofre), a fellow local Party leader like my father, and Dr. Magdalena Freschiane (codename Mariana). Both of them had been imprisoned, the latter while pregnant (by her boyfriend and co-militant Guilherme Lara Leite), just like my mother. Magdalena named her second daughter Mariana, a story like my own.
Of course, I also hoped that I could find something about Foedes — some deposition that could finally tell me exactly what he’d revealed to the government about my parents, when, and most importantly why.
I awoke suddenly one night in 2004, frightened and covered in sweat, from a nightmare about my mother in prison. She was young and shaking uncontrollably, locked alone in a dark room with a boa constrictor. In the shadows, the serpent slithered in her direction and lunged at her. Then I was in my bed. My body was sore and clammy, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Because I knew that the snake and the dark room were real.
In one of her torture sessions, a man known as Dr. Pablo brought a 9-foot snake weighing 110 pounds, just as heavy as my pregnant, 19-year-old mother, into the dank cell with him. She doesn’t remember how long she stayed there with the snake — hours or days. It was long enough for the snake to strike her, just like in my dream, although it never managed to crush the life out of her. She knew the snakes were attracted to movement, so she held dead still.
Before the snake, in the same cell, she was stripped naked and placed before about 10 soldiers, who threatened to rape her. She was punched, kicked, strung up before snarling dogs, her head slammed into a wall so hard it left a trail of blood running down the back of her neck. Just to name a few tactics they used.
One night, they told her she was going to die. She saw her shadow on the white walls of the fort. She cut a frail figure, barely able to withstand the dogs and guns any longer as she thought about the child in her womb and her husband, almost certainly dead. I’m too young to die, she thought. Or at least that’s what she told the journalist Luiz Cláudio Cunha of the website Observatório da Imprensa in the only interview she ever gave on her torture. A private person, she’d finally been convinced to open up in August 2014 by the forthcoming results of the National Truth Commission, the nation’s first attempt at rooting out hard facts about the torture and general human rights violations of the military dictatorship, initiated in 2011 and issuing its final reports soon after my mother’s confessional.
After she entered the prison in 1972, they left her to starve for days. When they let her feed herself, a captain known as Guilherme slapped her so hard her cup of orange juice flew across the room. The head of the battalion, he was skinny, of average height, and had a cold gaze.
Elsewhere in the same fort, unbeknownst to my mother, my father was enduring his own personal 13 months of hell, nine of them in solitary confinement. In the first weeks, he was tied to a chair for days, beaten, punched in the face, and kicked in the ribs whenever he tried to fall asleep. They placed a German shepherd in front of him, letting it try to bite his nose off as angry soldiers cried terrorist!, egging the dog on. Over several rounds of Russian roulette, he nearly lost his life as they pulled the trigger one, two, three times against his temple. He was taken out with a firing squad, but not killed. It was psychological torture, different yet the same for both him and my mother.
Earlier that year, he’d led the only student protest in the country, halting classes in the medical school of the Federal University of Espírito Santo for two days and stopping work at the nearby Hospital de Clínicas. But many of his compatriots say he emerged a different man than that fiery campus leader had been after his torture. In that room, there was only fear, a chair, and a portrait of Duque de Caxias, hero of the Brazilian army. Over the course of a year, these surrounding transformed him from a beloved firebrand into a quiet introvert.
“I don’t like to talk about this stuff”, he told me when I brought up his torture again recently.
I was never the same after that nightmare about my mother. Under the cold water of my morning shower, I suddenly realizedthat I could get access to my parents’ habeas data, a summary report onprison sentences in the dictatorship compiled by the Federal Government in the ‘70s. I found my parents listed as cases 3,253 and 40,640 in the habeas reference catalogue. I learned that these files contained pages of data about my parents, including their statements to a Military Judge as compiled on 6 July 1977, four months before my birth, and archived on 28 May 1979, when I was about six months old. Before both of their numbers was the phrase “STM,” an acronym for the Superior Court of Military Justice, which caught my eye. I was living in Brasília, the home of the court in question.
It made me, as a 26-year-old journalist, feel a bit stupid. After years of searching, I’d found what I was looking for, and it was waiting in a drawer just three-and-a-half miles (less than ten minutes by car) from my home.
The Superior Court of Military Justice is an imposing building in central Brasília. 13 stories tall in a city where most structures max out at six, looking up at it I was reminded of how much the military loves its symbols of grandeur. I counted 27 windows on the first floor alone. Behind one of those high-up windows, I suspected, were the files referenced by the habeas records. But I was mistaken. The archives were in the basement.
Military basements have a significance in Brazil. These underground rooms were once the notorious prison cells of the dictatorship. And here they were, in 2004, put to new purposes. After the rigmarole of entering a military facility, I went down a flight of stairs, into a parking lot with freshly painted white walls, crossed the expanse of asphalt, and entered a little door into the archetype of Brazilian bureaucracy.
Several guards stood on hand, monitoring the files which were, in practice, off limits to everyone. They denied my first request for access — a short woman, out of uniform, told me that because the files contained personal information I’d need official, notarized authorization from my parents attached to an information request form to be submitted for analysis and approval through official military channels.
I left the court to convince my parents to let me investigate their murky past. I told them that I wanted to see the documents so that our family could keep them as mementos of our survival. They agreed to sign the authorization forms, still unaware that one of my aims in seeking this data was to chase down Foedes.
Two weeks later, I had everything signed and stamped by a notary public, submitted my forms, received a protocol number, and waited three months before hearing back from the courts. Yes, said the woman’s voice on the telephone. My request was successful. Months of struggle ended in a 20 second phone call.
I needed to be at work by 10 AM the next day, so I got up early to go to the archives first. I wanted to be able to make the most of the narrow, one-day window I’d been granted. Yet it took me longer than ever to find parking. I bolted to the building and downstairs. A soldier promptly fetched the case file, five thick volumes strung together with white string and held between green covers imprinted with a tiny military logo, and placed it before me.
The first volume was dated 1977, the year of my birth, but the case proceedings it detailed had begun in Espírito Santo in 1972. I asked if I could copy all of this, but the soldier told me I needed a separate form — a whole new filing request and another months-long wait — for that. Now I could just read. It was hard not to get agitated, with the files I’d spent so long searching for right in front of me. But I decided that I’d toe the line, file another request ASAP, and make the most of my present, brief appointment, even if I couldn’t do in-depth research.
I turned to page two of volume one. Scribbled by hand were the following notes: “1977 — appeal 40,640–1 air force hearing — 5 volumes — DL 898/69.” After that were written 28 names, mostly students at the University of Espírito Santo (including my parents) and all listed as members of the “Vitória Group” of the Communist Party of Brazil. This list omitted a few names of those who’d been arrested, like Vítor Buaiz, a member of the group who, after his release from prison, helped to found the Brazilian Worker’s Party and wound up being elected the governor of Espírito Santo in 1994. The second volume contained individual profiles of each of the 28 defendants, in alphabetical order. A black and white photo. They also had a photo accompanied each profile. They also had a photo of Buaiz — proof that the document was imperfect at best.
Wasting no time, I flipped back to the M section, where I’d find Marcelo and Miriam, listed by first name as per Brazilian custom. And there was my father. In his mugshot he had a full head of hair, thin moustache, and defiant state, showing no fear of the violent presence behind the camera. Below, there was a standard inmate registration form with a set of fingerprints. His last name was misspelled: Neto instead of Netto. Parents (Wolghano Netto and Maria da Natividade Netto), date of birth, nationality, marital status, and profession all followed as you’d expect.
Then under aliases, I saw Mateus. I paused and looked at the soldier. He stared back blankly. So I read on:
“Member of the Regional Command of the Communist Party of Brazil and medical school militant”.
My eyes began to well up.
Next I found my mother. She looked beautiful. She was just a girl in my father’s baggy, white button-down shirt. She had curly hair and a serious face, fearless and set for the hard months ahead. Under her photo, I saw my grandparents’ names: Uriel de Almeida Leitão and Mariana Azevedo de Almeida Leitão. I read the last line of her page: Married to Marcelo Amorim Neto [sic] — Mateus.Tears rolled down my cheeks.
I thought about my grandfather, Uriel. A Presbyterian pastor, born to a poor family in Brazil’s northeast, he struck out to the south to build a successful life as a teacher in the state of Minas Gerais. I thought about the pain he must have felt when one of his twelve children vanished into the dictatorship. My grandmother, Mariana, a blue-eyed descendant of British and German immigrants, spent long nights praying for her missing child.
My tears were interrupted by the soldier, who asked if I was okay. It was almost 10 AM (I should have already been on my way to work). He was the only one left in the room. I asked if I could be left alone. I was overwhelmed, I said. I was playing fair, as I had for months, following the military’s rules, and asked politely and sincerely. He left the room.
But now that I had the files, I wanted to keep something from them, if only as a memento for my parents and for our close friends Jorge Luiz and Magdalena. I pulled out a little camera in my pocket, turned off the flash, and took a few shots of each of their photos and wrap sheets, then hid the camera before the soldier returned.
By the time the soldier came back in, I was looking at the file for Foedes, or as he was known in the files, Edson. That was a new name to me, a secret second sobriquet my parents probably didn’t know about either. But more important than this mysterious new pseudonym was the fact that, for the first time after years of searching, I got to see his face. He had frizzy hair, combed back, and squinty eyes and a beard. It’s not the strong, aggressive, mysterious face I’d always imagined.
The file said that he had a job in the local government of Colatina, a city 80 miles north of Vitória, before becoming a full-time secretary for the communists in Espírito Santo, the highest-ranked operative in the state. It also said that his full name was Foedes dos Santos. I took a deep breath each time I reread the lines.
The first record of Foedes’ connection to my father came on page three of his file. It listed him as a member of the four-man command of the Party in Espírito Santo, alongside Foedes:
“Foedes dos Santos, sentenced to one year and ten months imprisonment; Marcelo Amorim Netto, Jorge Luiz de Souza, Gustavo Pereira do Vale Neto, sentenced to one year imprisonment,” the file read.
I was certain I was thumbing these files more thoroughly than anyone ever had before. It was my personal treasure. I scoured them page-by-page, looking for clues, but I could read everything in-depth in one sitting.
Within the week, I had my photos developed. I framed the shots of my parents’ wrap sheets and delivered them to my by-then-divorced father and mother separately. My mother hugged and kissed me, ever encouraging. My father got his photo on his 54th birthday, wrapped as a present. I watched the surprise wash over his unsuspecting face as he opened the package, his eyes welling. Kennedy Alencar, a journalist and one of the few friends at the party, gave me a thumbs-up and whispered in my ear:
“Good luck topping that next year.”
Days later, still processing my experiences at the archives, I remembered that I needed to send Jorge Luiz and Magdalena their photos. I wrote each a letter by hand.
Jorge Luiz and my father survived the worst of their sentences together. Held bythe Sampaio Regiment in Rio’s Military Village after being transferred from Vitória following their initial torture, they were placed in solitary confinement for nine months withfew outside exercise breaks and no access to books or news reports. But they could still hear each other if they shouted from cell to cell. They played imaginary chess together, although they often lost track of their pieces.
Months earlier, on 3 December 1972 (the day the military started rounding up my parents and their comrades), Colonel Paulo Malhães (a.k.a. Dr. Pablo) greeted Jorge Luiz with a hard punch to the chest. The blow sent Jorge Luiz flying. Malhães had traveled from Rio to Vitória with a troupe of torturers and a boa constrictor coiled in a box to confront the recently captured communists.
He bore a frightening resemblance to Saddam Hussein and in 2014 he was dragged before the National Truth Commission, where he openly admitted to brutalizing and murdering communists for the dictatorship. I wanted to learn more about this enigmatic, sadistic figure, but a month after his testimony he was found dead in his home.
Back in 1972, Jorge Luiz was a young man from the city of Cachoeiro do Itapemirim with a freshly-minted BA in economics and a head of long hair, falling down to his shoulders, with a moustache. Malhães’ team stripped him naked and propped upright, then subjected him to a series of unending electric shocks. The soldiers had strung a sheet across the big room where it all played out, so they could watch the torture in silhouette without revealing themselves to the prisoner. Jorge Luiz felt the presence of the watchers, but he didn’t know who they was. Maybe Foedes was amongst them.
First they shocked his ears. Then his chest. Then his genitals. But Jorge Luiz continued to face down his tormentors defiantly. During a severe beating after these first shocks, he suffered a cardiac arrest. The torturers quickly resuscitated him, then promptly resumed the shocks, causing Jorge Luiz to scream in pain and piss himself. His heart stopped again. The CPR administered by the soldiers was so forceful that it broke his sternum. Yet miraculously Jorge Luiz survived — only to be subjected to further tortures thereafter.
That same December day, Magdalena, a hard-working medical student, was visiting Beth Madeira, another local Communist militant. While at Beth’s home, she learned about the arrests of three comrades, including Marcelo and Jorge Luiz. She and Beth promptly fled to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Cariacica, where they met Graça Cury, a slightly older man and a recent graduate who took them to a safe house in Barra do Jucú, a beach town in the Vila Velha municipality. They were given a fresh set of clothes and managed to fly under the radar for two weeks. But on 20 December they ran across another group of students being pursued by the military. Fearing they’d soon be found by the group’s pursuers, they packed up their few belongings and got a friend to drive them to the town of Campos, where they caught a bus to Rio.
“We wanted to run away, leave the country”, Magdalena told me recently.
In Rio, they split up: Beth went to a relative’s house while Magdalena took off with her boyfriend, Guilherme.The pair went to a ranch belong to Gullherme’s uncle in Minas Gerais. This relative, who flew under the regime’s radar as an employee at the Inter-American Development Bank, a respected international body with no leftist ties, was able to provide them some temporary safety. But he advised the couple to turn themselves in. They decided to follow his advice on 26 December 1972. At the end of Magdalena’s arrest report, the officers in charge added one small detail that resonated with my own mother’s experience: pregnant.
At the time, she and Guilherme were in the passionate throes of early love. Just two months earlier, they’d slept together for the first time. Somewhere between the beach and a dark dorm room, Magdalena lost her virginity and the couple conceived their first child, Janaína. But the military did not spare pregnant women. The soldiers knelt Magdalena down before a line of dogs and yelled terrorist! to send them into a frenzy, snapping at her face and barking like mad, just as they did with my mother and my unborn brother.
After two months of nail biting, I finally got notice that I’d be allowed to copy all five volumes of the report. In the reports, I found Foedes’s official statement on 7 December 1972 to Major José Maria Alves Pereira, the man who compiled the full report, four days after his initial (illegal) arrest when formal charges were filed. The testimony was definitive proof that he was the one who’d given up my parents
As recorded by the Major, Foedes, who apparently by then doubted the ideals and goals of the Party, had (as many suspected) provided information on my father and the rest of his comrades (referring to some by code and some by real names) that would dismantle the communists in Espírito Santo and set the military on the heels of the leadership in Rio. He revealed that many militants in the region were being trained to reinforce the Araguaia uprising, including my father, and allowed this bolstering force to be snuffed out before it began operations. My father was thrown under the bus with one simple line:
“The interviewee also mentions that the individual in charge of three activist cells at the medical school was [Marcelo] Amorim (Mateus).”
I read his report for the first time at home, in my room. I had to catch my breath several times, allowing the burning rage building in by stomach to subside. Each line stoked my anger until it roiled to near bursting. Yet I also realize that, by stopping my father from going off to the Araguaia, where 90 percent of the communist guerrillas in combat wound up executed by the military, Foedes had inadvertently saved my father’s life and allowed my birth five years later. The mixture of hate and half-thanks drove me crazy as I read further.
Foedes also revealed the time and location of a meeting on Cupertino Street, in the Rio neighborhood of Quintino on 20 December 1972 at 7 PM where the military could find Oest. At the meeting, Oest was arrested. Local officials published a false report stating that the Old Man was killed while fleeing his captors in Rio, but the truth, as born out in a number of recent historical works on the military dictatorship, was that he’d been captured, imprisoned, and tortured to death, unable to withstand the conditions forced upon the younger detainees.
Eight days later, Danielli was also arrested, based on information collected in the raid on Oest (and hence information ultimately attributable to the treachery of Foedes), when he and Amelinha, the sister of a guerrilla fighter named Criméia Scimidt (another woman pregnant when she’d been arrested by the dictatorship) who I’d met on my trip to Araguaia in 2004, showed up for a Party meeting. Upon his arrest, Danielli was beaten savagely by Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra (one of the few well-known and officially, legally confirmed torturers of the military regime) and his soldiers. On 31 December, the third day of Danielli’s torture, reports indicate that the formidable leader goaded his tormentors, saying:
“I know how you can find the guerrillas. I also know where to find [major communist leaders] Mauricio Grabois and João Amazonas. But I won’t tell you. You may continue now.”
Danielli later died from his tortures. But he never compromised his principles or the lives of his comrades.
The Nightmare Continues.
Now that I had proof — hard historical evidence — of my parents’ arrests and Foedes’s complicity in their imprisonment (and in the eventual torture and death of so many others), I started to think about what I’d actually do with the documents. I first thought about writing an article on them for Correio Braziliense.
Then I thought about my former editor, Eumano Silva, who was, at the time in 2004, on a sabbatical. He’d always been a good boss, devoted to training up young journalists, teaching us how to write quickly and with precision and freely sharing information. I realized that, if he were still at the paper, he’d say my parents’ involvement in this story was a clear conflict of interest, compromising me as a reporter, so I shouldn’t write about it for the paper. He would have been right.
I also remembered that Silva was on sabbatical because he and his fellow journalist Taís Morais were writing Operation Araguaia, a book on the very guerilla movement my parents had been involved with. I knew he’d be interested in these documents for the details they provided on the arrest and death of Danielli and Oest, a major blow to the rural battlefront, and long a murky and ill-documented chapter of the conflict. So I tracked him down and delivered Foedes’s nine-page deposition to him in person, along with a snapshot of some graffiti scrawled onto a Vitória building by my mother and some of her compatriots in 1972, reading:
“Long live the guerrillas in southern Pará! [part of what is now Tocantins]”
Recognizing the importance of the documents, Silva arranged to interview my father, who reacted much more calmly than I’d expected when he finally learned that I was digging into the past like this. After further research, Silva managed to publish his book in 2005. On pages 375 to 381 (in the first edition), he detailed Foedes’s statement, describing it as the main evidence on how the regime managed to track down, capture, torture, and kill major members of the central committee.
Silva’s book filled in many gaps in my parents’ story, fleshing out the story of the movement they’d been a part of and their importance to the anti-regime resistance at large. Yet for the next several years, I continued to write about the dictatorship, as well as produce investigative reports on contemporary politics, in my new job at the Brazilian weekly magazine Época, many of which brought me back to lingering questions about my parents’ history. One in particular, “Tortured before Birth,” about Criméia‘s son, João Carlos Grabois, published in 2007, especially caught me, as it reflected my mother’s predicament and cast it into a new, affecting light.
In 2008, I decided to continue my reporting on the military dictatorship by trying to get an interview with Ustra, who’d headed up torture operations in São Paulo’s Detachment of Information Operations-Center of Internal Defense Operations around the same time that Criméia and Danielli were held there. I thought that I might be able to learn something about the system that subjected Criméia and my mother to their fates, and in the process add something of importance to the still-mysterious history of the regime. I spent days scoping out his neighborhood and visiting his church before deciding one Tuesday to just knock on his door and ask him for an interview. Much to my surprise (and for reasons I still don’t understand), he accepted and I sat face-to-face with one of the nation’s most feared killers, asking him why he and the dictatorship had executed so many people — people like my parents.
Ustra denied that he had any involvement in torture, but he claimed that Romeu Tuma, the Deputy of the Department of Political and Social Order (the political police in São Paulo) during the dictatorship, monitored everything that went on there at the time. His implication of Tuma, at the time of that interview a member of the Brazilian Senate who would die two years later without ever addressing his connection to Ustra, was new information. But before I could process this data, on my way back from Ustra’s home, I had to ask my driver to stop the car so I could vomit — I’d been nauseated by my encounter with such an ominous force of the dictatorship.
Later, the now-late Ustra’s peers asked his wife why he’d given me, the journalist son of communists, such damning information about his role in the dictatorship. She told them that I’d just come off as childishly insistent.
The following Sunday, we ran the story in that week’s edition of Época. In his editor’s note, our director, Hélio Gurovitz, noted that the story had a special significance for me because of my parents’ history.
“His father was tortured and placed in solitary for nine months,” he wrote, underscoring my ties to Ustra. “His mother was tortured while pregnant with his older brother.”
Gurovitz entitled his note, “A Nightmare We Can’t Wake Up From.”
It was true. I just couldn’t escape the memory of my parents’ torture. It was like Gurovitz had read my mind.
As investigations into the dictatorship escalated in the Brazilian media, driven on by a gush of information following a judicial decision ordering the release of government documents on the Araguaia Guerrilla War in 2003, I grew increasingly convinced that I needed to track down Foedes and question him about the statement he’d given to the military in Vitória. I was convinced that, in person, he would be able to fill in even more of the blanks about the events of the dictatorship in which he’d been so deeply entwined.
As for any story, I turned to the Credit Protection Service (SPC), an online database of debtors used by shopkeepers to track down customers tardy on their payments. I’d need his voter registration and social security numbers as well as his tax registration code to find him in the system. The first two I figured I could get from a source at the Superior Electoral Court — and true to form she came through with his voter registration within 24 hours. His social security number came a bit later. Culling through state tax records, I discovered Foedes’s tax registration code as well, still in use in 2008, meaning that he was probably still alive. If Foedes purchased anything in Brazil using that code, commonly requested by vendors eager to check a buyer’s default history on the SPC, then I’d have his current address.
On 28 June 2008, I logged into the system and typed in 826, the first three digits of his social, and got a hit. Through the mist in my eyes, I saw on the screen an address for one Foedes dos Santos in Cariacica, and a license plate number for a grey Chevrolet Kadett registered in his name. Immediately, I opened an e-mail, addressed it to my parents, writing in the subject line: I Found Him.
“I found Foedes,” the body of my message read.
“I need to write this story: The man who gave up the Araguaia guerrillas. Put his face on the cover.
“I’m going after him in Espírito Santo. He’s 67 and living in Cariacica. His social security number is active. I need everything you guys know about him.
“Even though he betrayed you, I think I can still justify my involvement with the story, especially after Hélio Gurovitz’s editorial. I’d write my piece the same way [as I did the Ustra piece]: no revenge. First the torturer [Ustra], now the informant. The two sides of the dictatorship.
“Let’s not talk about this over the phone, especially not using his name. Even today, the world is crazy. If you want to talk about this, send me an e-mail or use a codename over the telephone. [This was before we really understood the potential of digital monitoring. ]”
I wanted to write a story that would finally show direct, causal links between Foedes and the ever-opaque collapse of the Party. I wanted to show that he was the military’s key informant in the arrest and torture not just of my parents, but many in the Party’s central command, precipitating in the guerrillas’ isolation in 1972. I wanted to bring some kind of definitive closure to the story of the Araguaia and of my parents’ own history.
Yet I hesitated to take the next step and actually start reporting the story. This wasn’t really my search alone. It was the search of a generation I didn’t belong to. I still felt like an intruder, as I had for years now. If they never spoke publicly about their past, I wondered if I had the right to.
I also wasn’t sure that, given my connection to the story, I’d be able to maintain my objectivity.
I was still puzzling this over when my mother gave her interview on her imprisonment and torture, wherein she talked about returning in the summer of 2014 to visit the base where she’d been imprisoned for the first time since her incarceration and spoke of all the ways she was brutalized. In the interview, she outlined some details that even I hadn’t heard before. Because of her stature in the Brazilian press, the interview drew attention back to the files I’d found a decade earlier in the military courts, which started to circulate far wider than they had via Silva’s book. I knew that it was only a matter of time before someone looking at those documents started digging into the story of Foedes, whether it was their story to tell or not. My previous conviction that Foedes needed to be found still intact, I decided that if anyone was going to tell the story, it might as well be me.
On 2 December 2014, I flew to Vitória to start the most important chapter of my quest for answers about Foedes’s decision to betray my parents, years and years after it began. I decided that on 3 December, I’d go to the address I’d found in 2008 and knock.
I didn’t intend it, but by coincidence 3 December was the 42-year anniversary of my parents’ arrest, a bright and sunny morning in 1972 when they were nabbed on their walk down the hill from their village to the beach. My mother wore a baggy, white men’s shirt over a red bikini; my father wore a similar shirt and brown shorts. Soldiers rushed in around them, handcuffed the pair, and hustled them into a van headed back to their base. My mother screamed so the neighbors would witness the arrest — advice Foedes had given her.
Foedes didn’t know I was coming. He didn’t even know I existed. I didn’t know if he was still alive, but by now he would be about 73 years old, I suspected.
I arrived around lunchtime and headed to the house of my cousin by way of my mother’s brother, Ivana (who’d just learned that she was pregnant). I planned to stay with her for the next few days. A block away, Eduardo Gomes, a young film producer from Brasília, six feet tall with green eyes and greying hair, was unpacking his supplies. He’d come along to document the final stages of my journey for BRIO.
That night, I discovered that I’d actually known Eduardo’s parents for years — they were both journalists who’d worked at Globo, a major brazilian TV station, alongside my parents and my brother Vladimir. We knew his father as “Baldy,” a kindly man who’d always treated me well when we met around Brasília. His mother, Fátima, was a family friend until she passed away in 2012 at age 58. While talking over this coincidence, Eduardo and I decided to make a quick run to Foedes’s house in Cariacica, borrowing Ivana’s 2010 Citroen for the 20-mile ride. But we didn’t talk much about him on the way. As we headed into the past, our conversation ironically drifted towards the present.
“What did you learn after your mother died?” I asked Eduardo.
“I learned that we need to be more patient with our feelings,” he replied. “That’s what I learned from her death. She was here one day and the next, poof, she had disappeared.”
It sounded like a profound insight to me, and it echoed in my head as I ran a red light to avoid stopping in the dangerous nighttime streets of Vitória.
Then Eduardo asked me what it was like to be married and how I’d decided to make such a commitment. I told him that I looked back to my origins, born into a Christian family full of pastors on my mother’s side (my cousin, uncle, grandfather, great uncle, and great great uncle included). My wife, Flávia, is likewise the cousin, niece, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of pastors. When I met her it felt like an invitation, not an imposition, to return to my religious foundations. And I accepted it, coming closer to believing in the existence of God as I drew closer to her in 2005. It’s all about going back to your roots, I told Eduardo, not really knowing if I’d made that decision consciously or not myself.
Before I left on my trip, Flávia told me that God would open doors for me. Like me, she’s a fairly devout Christian. But she’s not often given over to making those kinds of platitudes, so it felt a little curious.
Google Maps told us via Eduardo’s phone that we were getting close. But it took a man on a bicycle who spotted us turning onto a small, one-way street, to guide us to a fork in the road with a sign pointing to Rua Odonia da Costa Machado Toledo, Foedes’s address.
We found the property we believed to be his: Apartment One, a small unit with a roof terrace, unpretentious even in this modest neighborhood, on a well-maintained plot on a street corner just above a small shop with yellow, hinged gates. A small veranda jutted out from the unit just slightly. We drove by five times to see if we could spot any movement, but the cream-colored drapes were closed. Something felt wrong. It looked like an empty apartment, abandoned for a holiday — that or the home of someone meticulously tidy.
We retreated home so as not to draw too much attention to ourselves. It was late and the following day would be a long one. But at least we’d found his building.
In Their Shoes.
Ivana’s house was silent when we returned, entering through the front door. Apart from Francisco, the dog, everyone was asleep. I checked my e-mails and found one waiting unread in my inbox from my mother.
“Are you there? I hope not, you should be conked out, snoring. I’m going to read a bit more. Good night, son.
“He is strange, this man you are looking for. Your father would say he’s vain; I’d say he’s sneaky.
“He has had to live with his secret: Why did he give everyone up? What did he feel when he knew he had led people to their deaths? “I never liked him. We were different. He didn’t like me. “I hope to God you are able to tell your story. Follow your instincts.”
I wrote back just to say that I loved her, and to mention Eduardo’s mother and our coincidental connections.
On my way to the kitchen to grab some water, I ran into my aunt Jane washing dishes. She didn’t want to wake Ivana, so she asked me to come in and close the door.
Jane was yet another of this trip’s quirks. She’d just returned from a sabbatical in the US, a bit sooner than I’d expected. I didn’t think I was going to run into her, much less wind up discussing the events of the 1970s.
She’d known my parents well at the time — she and my uncle Cláudio, my mother’s brother, lived with my mother after she’d had Vladimir and returned to work. At the time my father, the more important of the two inmates politically, was still prison (and would be for another ten months). He sent letters to my mother often, folded up like accordions so they’d be easier to smuggle out, which would make her sob as she read them. Jane and Cláudio had a son of their own, Pedro, born just 15 days before Vladimir. When my father got out, the two couples kept on living together for a year in a tiny bungalow, just one bedroom and one livingroom between them.
Jane knew why I was in town. She asked what’d happened on our drive. I explained, and she said, bluntly:
“You need to put yourself into other people’s shoes, Matheus. That’s what I do, I think. I’m a grown woman, but what about my kids? How will they deal with things?”
“Those were really hard times,” she continued, getting a little emotional as her mind drifted back towards the past. “When your father got out of jail, after all that time in solitary, he was a broken man. He came back to find your mother trying to build herself back up again after the torture and your brother’s birth.”
My father, unemployed and shattered, stayed at home to help Jane care for the two children while my uncle made and sold shoes at the market and my mother pulled down jobs as a reporter for a radio station and a local newspaper simultaneously. In 1975, my uncle wound up joining the MR-8, another leftist party opting for militant revolution against the regime.
Most of the records of that time were lost, including the letters my father sent from prison, sloughed off in some move or another. But I managed to track two of them down through my mother’s old friend, Beth Madeira. In one of them, my father wrote to his comrades towards the end of his confinement:
“People, don’t worry, you know we’ll see each other again. Distance, time — it makes no difference, none of this can ever erase our love.
“It’s no use. I’ve said it before. It’s no use.
“Look: one day [the soldiers] are going to get tired of us and kick us out of here and I’m going to come home and hug Tião Guilherme without so much as a tear, then sock you guys in the guts and say, I told you so.
“And all these lovely people that we call our friends. I don’t know, damn, Beth, Magdalena, Sandra. I adore you all. Life here is awful, but it makes no difference.
“The demon was here today. He took me away and then brought me back. “I’m with you guys forever and I don’t care about all of this here anymore. I got to look at the sea, to look at the city, and I thought, I’m strong, I’m young, I’m not sick.
“And I thought, why is all this happening? I felt regret. And I cried for our generation.
“Freedom, where are you, freedom? The people I love, where are you? “One day we’re going to get out of here and, I don’t know, I think a lot of us are going to be different.
“I don’t know if they’re going to let me keep studying medicine and I’m afraid I won’t be able to cure the pain like mozinho [my mother’s pet name] likes.
“But that’s fine. We’ll just find something else to do. We’ll find jobs, a place to stay, and keep things moving. They say it’s difficult to row against the tides. Sure, sure …”
After the text came a doodle of Charlie Brown leaning against a palm tree.
Less than two months after that letter was written, my father got out of prison and found my mother and his friends just trying to move on with life. Tagged as subversives, they’d been banned from attending university for three years under the dictatorship’s Legal Decree 477. And when my father got to return three years later, they told him he couldn’t pick up where he’d left off in his final semester. He’d have to redo two years of coursework. His dream of a medical career dead, he drew further away from his old life and self.
My father wound up spending his days with the kids. He still teases my brother and cousin about it today.
“I always had to clean you two up,” he says. “You would shit all the damn time. You were hard work!”
They didn’t know it, but just by being alive, Pedro and Vladimir did a world of good for my father’s mind.
I woke up later than usual the following day, at around 9 AM. I’d only slept a few hours, but it was the deep, rejuvenating type of rest you always hope for. The house was empty, without even the dog to keep me company. Ivana and Jane had left a note saying that they’d gone to Caratinga, the town in Minas Gerais where my mother was born and where she’d returned to recover in her first days out of prison before giving birth to Vladimir — she weighed just 86 pounds at the time — before getting back to work.
Eduardo and I decided to return to Foedes’s home by taxi, so as not worry about GPS and our lack of local street smarts. Once the cab arrived, Eduardo and I set to talking about 1972 and our trip the previous night, while our driver, Mauro Ângelo Costa, listened intently.
“There have been so many coincidences,” I told Eduardo. “It looks like I really do have to follow this story. It feels like I’m being pushed towards it. I didn’t expect to get to talk to my aunt, and I didn’t know I’d have a connection to you. It’s like something else is controlling this… Do you think Foedes is still alive?”
“I hope so,” Eduardo replied. “What do you think?”
“I think he is, too.”
Eduardo decided that he’d ask Costa to park down the street while I went to knock on Foedes’s door, praying he’d be there. The drapes were drawn and still again. It was already 10 AM; the birds were singing and the sun was blazing.
“I don’t believe this, there’s no one home,” I muttered. “He hasn’t touched those drapes in days.”
Then I noticed something I hadn’t the night before. The yellow gate on the shop below, still closed, had been freshly painted. And on it hung a homemade sign reading: For Rent.
“Are you nervous?” Eduardo asked.
“A bit,” I said, feeling my heart start to race. “I think I’m going to try it now.”
“Okay, good luck,” he replied, breaking out his camera gear and setting up to film.
I counted each of my 49 steps to Foedes’ door, past a group of workmen jackhammering in the middle of the road, very conscious of the concealed wireless microphone affixed to the inside of my shirt. I rang the buzzer at the gate once, twice, five times, but no one answered. At a loss, I went back to consult with Eduardo and decided to ask the employees at a mechanic’s garage down the lane if they knew anything about Foedes.
“Hey man!” I called to one of the mechanics, Wanderson, a 35-year-old man in a blue boilersuit covered in grease stains.
“Do you know the guy who lives in that house over there?” I asked, after introducing myself as a journalist (as I would to everyone in the neighborhood I spoke to).
“In that building?” he replied. “Man, I don’t know him. I hardly see anyone coming out of there. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone on that veranda.”
I asked him about the shop front on the ground level of Foedes’s apartment.
“It used to be open,” says Wanderson, “but it must have been closed for about five months now. It was a diner, Cantinho da Roça.”
Still lacking any real, useful information, we decided to try one of the neighbors’ houses.
“I’m starting to wonder if we’ll really find him,” I murmured aloud.
As I approached the rusted white gate butting up against Foedes’s building, I wasn’t hoping for much. Still, I took off my sunglasses just in case it’d make me seem friendlier and help things along.
“Good morning, sorry to bother you,” I said as the gate swung open. “What’s your name?”
Her name was Isabel, a 50-some-year-old with glasses and hair dyed red, tied back in a ponytail.
“Can I ask you a quick question?” I asked, pointing up and over. “Do you know the man who lives there?”
“It’s a family,” said Isabel, “but they’re away at a ranch up in Santa Maria de Jetibá now. They’ve got some land up there. What’s it called? God … Garrafão?”
“Garrafão?” I pressed. “Is that in Espírito Santo?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes it is.”
“Is it close?”
“Not really, no. It’s up in the hills.”
“And we’re talking about the same house?” I stressed, pointing again.
“Yes,” she replied with certitude, “that’s the one. Mr. Edson. Foedson, that’s his name.”
“Ah,” I said, “Foedson?”
My mind went back to those military court records. Edson was one of Foedes’s nicknames. So this was just some strange amalgamation of his real name and one of his two major aliases. I pushed a bit further, asking Isabel whether she knew Foedes at all.
Not only did she know him, but she spoke quite highly of him:
“We don’t have a bad word to say about that family,” she said, listing his wife Virginia and son Cláudio, the latter of whom lived in Garrafão.
I asked if she’d be able to give me a phone number for where they were, but no such luck.
“My parents knew him way back in the 1970s,” I said, by way of explanation for my prying questions. “That’s why I’m looking for him. Do you know anyone here who might know more about the ranch than you?”
“I don’t think anyone else would know more, no,” she said. “He’s a quiet man. He doens’t open up much. He’s old, and keeps to himself. And he’s sick, undergoing some kind of therapy. It’s hard to make friends with him because he really just minds his own business, you know?”
What I did know now was that Foedes was, if old and sick, certainly alive. I wasn’t just hoping anymore.
Behind Foedes’s apartment, separated from his property by a tall, grey gate, there sat a little bungalow. Eager to learn more about Foedson, as he was known here, I stood for ages outside the gate, clapping and yelling to get the attention of whoever lived inside, struggling to be heard over the din of the motorcycles on the street and the screeching birds in the trees. Eventually, a black Ford Fiesta pulled up and parked in front of the house. A tall, slim man, about 35 years old with a mohawk, got out and introduced himself as Franklin Erlacher. I asked him too what he knew of his neighbors.
“I know them, but not well,” he said. “A few years back, we had a falling out.”
“Just your usual neighborhood argument. We had a really productive avocado tree for a while, but he put some weird burnt oil thing up and it killed it. That was about 20 years ago.”
“He killed … your avocado tree?”
“He did. I had a dog that used to play over on his property, too. But he’d put poison out for it to eat. Coward.”
I already thought Foedes was a villain, but this added charge of wanton cruelty still shocked me. I asked if he was absolutely certain Foedes did all of this on purpose.
“About the avocado tree, sure,” he said. “About the dog, well, he was healthy. He used to bark around the yard all day. And one day he was just dead. I don’t know for sure, but still …” said Franklin, trailing off.
He too knew about Foedes’s son and the ranch, but he didn’t have a number. But he did point me to a blue house across the street from Foedes’s apartment, where he said a man named Alcântara lived. Apparently he’d bought a house from Foedes at some point. So we went over to see if he knew more.
Again, there was no doorbell, so I tried clapping and shouting. Alcântara, a squat and chubby man of around 40 years, hurried out, but he didn’t want to talk. He seemed suspicious of me. He just said that he didn’t know much about Foedes, save that sometimes his wife worked for one of the neighbors in a house he pointed out. So again, we trundled off. But we resolved this would be our last cold call before just going to Garrafão to try to find the ranch by wandering around and asking questions there in much the same way.
I buzzed up to the final house, but before anyone could answer another neighbor, José Geraldo, a short, stocky man of about 60 years wearing a white t-shirt and sandals and carrying a plastic bag, came over to ask what we were doing. After hearing us out, he said that he knew Foedes — the two had fought as well, although it was so long ago he couldn’t quite remember what about. Nor did he know where he was.
“If I did know I’d tell you. My conscience is clear. His, I’m not so sure about. He’s quite an odd man.”
He confirmed that, if anyone knew where this mysterious ranch was, it’d be Agenor, the neighbor whose door we were knocking at. And a bit later, he appeared — a friendly man with grey hair and a moustache and bright blue eyes. Yet when I asked him for a phone number for Foedes or his wife, he too got suspicious and disappeared. Five minutes later, though, he returned with a number for a landline — he didn’t have Foedes’s cell. I suspected that he might’ve just called the family to warn them that we asking around about Foedes.
“If you don’t want to give us his cell number, I understand,” I said. “Some random guy shows up at your door and asks for your neighbor’s number …”
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” replied Agenor, who (surprisingly) said he liked Foedes.
According to him, Foedes hadn’t allowed him to give out that number.
As we walked back to the taxi, we noticed that all of the neighbors were at their doorsteps, looking at us.
Back in the car, Costa told us that Garrafão was about two hours away, over some hills.
“We can always come back tomorrow,” said Eduardo, “and if he’s not here, then go to Garrafão.”
“No,” I said. “Let’s go there today. These people are going to tell him we’re looking.”
Or at least the one or two who didn’t have a problem with him might, I thought, feeling a little paranoid.
“It’s best that we get there as soon as possible. Let’s get this job done and end this search once and for all.”
I was done with hesitation and waiting.
Sheep And Shepherd.
After a brief lunch, we switched out our taxi for Ivana’s car and started on the 90-mile journey to São João do Garrafão, the full name of the village where Foedes’s son apparently had a ranch. But we weren’t sure where the ranch was, so we decided that we’d just roll into the town ask around until we could find someone who knew Foedes.
On the road, I started feeling motion sick and asked Eduardo to pull over for a moment. I splashed a bit of water from a nearby tap on my face, popped an antiemetic with some soda, and then looked out over the river, watching the muddy water roll down the hills and into the Bay of Vitória. But my nausea continued to build as the road rolled on. When we hit Santa Leopoldina, 40 miles from Garrafão, I took the wheel, a surefire way to calm my gut.
From that point on, every time we pulled over for a moment, we started asking people if they knew anyone by the name of Foedes, Edson, Foedson, Cláudio, or Virgínia. Most of the gas station attendants found it odd that we were out looking for a ranch with no address, but they just pointed us forward to Garrafão.
The road started to twist and turn, and the number of wildly careening trucks picked up. A flatbed barreling down a hill towards us nearly knocked our car into a ditch. Soon after, we finally came to Santa Maria de Jetibá, the town just outside of Garrafão.
Unsure whether I’d still get cell reception further down the road, I sent an e-mail to my father, mother, and brother at 6:04 PM: I am in Santa Maria de Jetibá, close to Foedes’s ranch. He’s still alive. Just letting you know where I am. I’m about to go off into the woods to find him. I might not have a signal. I love you guys.
The evening was starting to worry me. I wasn’t eager to run into Foedes at night with no cell phone, just to start asking him probing and unpleasant questions. Yet according to the GPS, taped to the car’s windshield, we were just seven minutes out from Garrafão.
Just them, my mother replied to my e-mail: May God be with you. Be careful. This man has no limits.
“This man has no limits?” echoed Eduardo, himself growing more nervous by the second. “Fucking hell!”
His reaction frightened me, so I tried to pay more attention to the road ahead, a freshly asphalted path falling into a sharp valley trough. To our left, a grove of eucalyptus trees hid small dirt tracks branching off the highway. We passed a blue and white house that looked eerily abandoned, and just as the sun started to fall below the clouds on the horizon we spotted a little Lutheran church.
“Ministers and priests know everyone,” I told Eduardo, pulling off the road to the right and quickly parking.
A member of the congregation pointed us towards the pastor, Geraldo, who was in a white Volkswagen just then pulling out of the car park and back onto the main thoroughfare.
“Should we follow him?” I asked Eduardo.
He agreed that we should, so we ran back to the car and took off after the pastor, turning down a dirt road after a mistaken mirage of a Volkswagen. On that path, we ran into a local man, a simple guy with graying hair and a bit of a paunch, and asked him about the pastor. He told us that we should go back to the main road and follow it for about 10 more minutes, to another church where Geraldo also preached.
A little ways down the road, after crossing paths with a couple of Pomeranian women in a white Volkswagen that we mistook for the pastor’s, we saw a sign that read, Welcome to São João do Garrafão. The church was just a bit further, the women said. But before we found it, we had to stop again at a pharmacy for information. There the Pomeranian ladies caught up with us and pointed to the church, just over a hill. On a whim, not expecting anything after grilling nearly 30 people on the drive thus far, I asked them about Foedes:
“Do you know a Cláudio, who has a ranch near here? Son of Virgínia and Edson?”
“Ah, yes, I know him,” said one of the women. “Cláudio, I know him.”
I twisted around in the driver’s seat to lean out the window and pressed:
“The son of Virgínia and Edson?”
“Yes. A short man. Cláudio lives nearby, and his father’s with him now, too.”
“Where exactly does he live?”
They answered with a set of directions even more confusing than the back streets of Cariacica, but I took a deep breath and wrote it all down, happy for a glimmer of hope after a seemingly futile search.
“If you want to follow me,” said one of the women, mercifully, “I’m on my way home now. I can show you where it is from there.”
The women drove off and Eduardo followed, but not before letting out a fucking hell.
“The sheep that follows the shepherd,” I told him, suddenly feeling quite nervous again, “finds its way.”
“Unbelievable,” I chanted to Eduardo. “Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable!”
“We met those women twice!” I marveled. “When she said she knew him, I didn’t believe it. Seriously, I was getting suspicious — this guy was holed up, talking to no one, couldn’t be found. It was over.”
But now it wasn’t.
I followed them for five minutes, then the woman in the driver’s seat stopped and rolled down her window.
“This is my stop,” she said. “You need to take this road up the hill, then down. On your way down, you’ll see a bridge and a school, Rio Taquara. Then you’ll keep going until you see a house next to a lake with lots of lamps. Then [she laughed], it’s really difficult to get there. But ask anyone you see. He lives down that way, about two or three kilometers from here. You’ll find him eventually.”
As the horizon turned a deep red, I reset the odometer on the dash to clock the next few kilometers. Soon after, my cell signal suddenly disappeared, swallowed up by the lush but foreboding scenery.
“It’ll be night by the time we get there,” I said. “God help us.”
As we turned a tight corner on the dirt road, we found ourselves face-to-face with a forest fire as the sun finally vanished.
“Fucking hell,” moaned Eduardo. “We’re in Mordor.”
Eventually I spied the school in the distance.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this at night,” I replied. “Imagine if it were a Wednesday night at your home and some nervous guy turned up at your door.”
Soon after, Eduardo spotted a little house by a lake with several lamps.
“That’s really creepy,” he muttered.
We stopped to ask two young guys, the only people we’d seen on the path, for directions. Foedes’s house was just ahead, they said.
“You nervous?” asked Eduardo.
“Yeah,” I said.
Then I recited the biblical story where Jesus stands before the cross and says to God: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.
“That’s my prayer now,” I told him, eliciting another fucking hell in reply — that just made Eduardo more nervous.
When we reached the ranch, we saw a green house on the property with a car parked out front. Eduardo shined a flashlight on the license plate. It was from Cariacica. This was it — Foedes’s car.
My heart was beating out of my ribcage. A man in light green shorts shorts and a dark green T-shirt with white and blue lettering reading The Original Trademark came out of the house. He was about 40 years old with fair hair and green eyes. He had a well kempt beard, smooth features, and a stern, firm gaze.
Without much thought, either in the moment or beforehand, I just shouted to him:
“Hey man, how’s it going? Are you Cláudio?”
“Yes,” came his terse reply.
“Can I park my car so we can have a quick chat?”
I rolled up my window. As I stepped out of the car, Eduardo said that he’d follow me up to the house soon.
“Sorry to bother you this late,” I said. “Are your parents named Foedes and Virginia?”
“Why?” he asked defiantly, standing three steps away in the frame of his door. “What’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem. I’m doing research on the dictatorship and I’d like to chat with [your father] about it.”
Cláudio looked shocked. He asked how we’d found them all the way out there. I explained our afternoon sojourn to Cariacica and the brief details of our trip into the countryside.
“I don’t know if he’ll like talking about that,” cautioned Cláudio. ”What’s your name?”
“Just Matheus?” he pressed again.
“Matheus Leitão Netto.”
“You have a familiar face”
“Really? Do I look like someone?”
“You do, but I can’t remember who,” he said before excusing himself to fetch his father from another house.
The noise of frogs, mosquitoes, and cicadas filled the air, scoring the tension of the eerily low-lit night.
“What do you want to ask him about?” asked Cláudio upon returning, alone.
“I’m researching the dictatorship,” I said. “And my parents knew your father then.”
As soon as I said that, Foedes dos Sanots emerged from the shadows. Beared with thick white hair, he wore a blue sweatshirt with matching fleece pants and flip-flops. He looked like your average 73-year-old grandfather, shuffling up to us with his head down, watching each step carefully but walking smoothly and easily. He looked calm, but suspicious, standing five feet away from me. He coughed twice, lifted his head, and looked me straight in the eyes. It was him. I recognized him clearly from his 1970s mugshot.
“Everybody’s sick right now,” Cláudio said, by way of explaining his father’s cough. “My mother has pneumonia. My one-year-old is sick too.”
It was all I could say.
“Yes,” replied the old man.
“How are you?” I said calmly and easily, “I was wondering if we could have a quick chat.”
From a distance, Eduardo tried to film the whole encounter as discreetly as he could. I stepped forward, without shaking Foedes’s hand, and Cláudio led us into the main house, the green porch giving way to a blue livingroom, where he lived with his wife and his young son, Gabriel, who lay on a mattress in the middle of the floor watching TV. Like his father, he was fair-haired and handsome, grinning ear-to-ear, his mouth full of dinner. He didn’t make a peep as he was shuffled out of the room, which was rearranged into a seating space for my long-anticipated interview. Foedes pulled up a white, iron chair and sat down.
“Cláudio”, I said, “thanks for letting us in so late.”
“Don’t mention it,” he replied politely. “Make yourselves at home”
“So?” asked Foedes, again locking eyes with me, still strong in nature despite the infirmities of age.
“I’m researching the dictatorship,” I said, telling the truth but not all of it to ease my way in with him.
“I’m researching the dictatorship,” I said, telling the truth but not all of it to ease my way in without scaring him off.
“How did you join the Party? I’m trying to figure that out for a story I’m write about that period.”
“And you’re what? A journalist?”
“Yes. A journalist and a researcher.”
“I remember who you look like!” blurted Cláudio. “Miriam Leitão. You’re her son, right?”
“I read an interview with her recently,” said Foedes, who now looked surprised.
“When?” I asked. “About the dictatorship?”
“Did you know her then?”
“And my father, Marcelo? Codename Mateus?”
“My name is Matheus, after the codename. But you know that. It’s a long story.”
“I’ve Been Expecting You”.
It was an unbearably tense situation. I tried to play the journalist, rather than just the son looking for answers, keeping some degree of objectivity. But the two roles were hard to balance.
What follows is a transcript of my interview with Foedes from that point on:
I was hoping you could help me understand a few things. What it was like for you in prison?
Prison was a natural consequence. The dictatorship took away everything, even our former lives. No one was strong enough to fight them, especially if they didn’t have support. The authorities did everything they could to drag your name through the dirt, which is what they did with me. You can see that in my story. There’s no mention of my origins.
How do you mean?
My origins. How I wound up in the Party, what I did before. They portrayed me as a miscreant, a layabout, an outlaw. But I was a civil servant.
In the local government of Colatina. I was appointed to the post. If memory serves, I spent eight years working for the mayor’s office. I even applied for tenure because, according to the dictatorship’s constitution, all civil servants who had worked five years since the enactment of the constitution would be eligible for tenure. I had been there for over five years, right? When I was put in prison, they made me out to be some layabout with no job. They took my work card and ripped it up. All of my documents were destroyed.
What happened on the day of your arrest? Do you remember the exact date?
I do. I had just moved the Party’s printing press. We didn’t have a headquarters or anything. We would meet out in the woods. It was safer than meeting at anyone’s apartment.
You were part of the regional command, is that correct?
That’s right. I was the highest ranked member in Espírito Santo.
And how did you come to first meet the communists?
They found me. Some Party members sought me out because I seemed militant. It happened naturally.
When you say you were sought out, just to be clear, was it Lincoln Cordeiro Oest who sought you?
No, central command would never come out for something like that. They sent someone else. The man who brought me in was part of the professional wing of the Party — a guy from the northeast named Roberto Carlos. He became a close friend. Roberto Carlos ended up disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Not even the central committee had any idea what happened to him. The regime didn’t release any information about him and even that Operation Araguaia book doesn’t mention his disappearance.
And what year did you start getting involved with the Party?
It was in ‘66. I was promoted to regional director in ‘67.
Can I show you a photo? [I handed him his own prison file mugshot.] Do you recognize this man?
Was this all you wanted to show me? Why?
Is that you?
Why did you want to show me this?
[Foedes raised his voice for the first time in our interview.]
I want to show you the whole file. Can I?
There’s no need.
There’s no need?
No. Ask what you want and I’ll answer.
I wanted to show you the file so we could talk about your arrest in ‘72. What happened?
As regional director, I was the one responsible for printing A Classe Operária [the newsletter of the Communist Party of Brazil, circulated in the Party since 1925 and made illegal by the regime until 1985]. We were underfunded for so many things, including our press department. The press we had, we’d stolen from a college in Alto Laje [near Vitória].
By we, who are you referring to?
That day it was myself and [a man named] Iran Caetano. No one else from the party knew about it. It wasn’t their business.
Initially, the printing press stayed in Iran’s house. He had rented a place with a separate room, a toilet, sink, and a small livingroom. It was all nicely put together. It had a terrace and everything. We kept the press there. Ângela [Iran’s wife] was a militant at the philosophy and medical schools, which were nearby, and I was afraid they’d be followed home and someone would find our press. So I made a mistake and took it back to my house, which was just a standard working class home. Back then the minimum wage was only 100 cruzeiros [approximately $230, adjusted for inflation] per month. That’s what the Party would pay me and that’s what I lived off of. We didn’t raise much money. We just needed some to run the press, pay for bus fares, and that sort of thing. My house was just a wooden shack, sealed off with thin planks, in a newly-developed tract in the Canaã neighborhood [of Vitória]. There was no electricity, but the press was manual so I’d operate it myself. I didn’t tell anyone I had moved it. Only Iran knew.
What exactly was the mistake you made?
That was my mistake. The press was safer at Iran’s house.
It turned out that a man who worked with me during my political training [a bootcamp in Marxism and a litmus test of one’s willingness to confront the regime], Arlindo Sperandio, had been sentenced to three years in prison in absentia just as the dictatorship came into power. We kept in touch. He was a friendly contact, midway between a political source and a friend. And that’s how the problem started. He had a woman living with him and one day [they] asked me over for lunch. I went and she saw my face. Then later Arlindo got arrested by the 38th Infantry Battalion and they gave him a pretty rough time. He realized he was going to die, so he gave me up.
They caught me on a bus. Arlindo’s wife [that woman he was living with] got on at one stop with a man I didn’t recognize, then she got off at the next stop and went home. I went to my stop, which was 500 yards from my house across what was basically an open field. There were only a few houses there. I looked behind me, and the man who had been with her had gotten off and was following me. I thought, where’s he going? Then I stopped at a gulch and unzipped my fly to pee, just to see what he’d do. He walked past me a bit further and stopped to pee himself. Then I walked past him, kept going, and didn’t see him again. When I got home, I had lunch, but the gas was out, so I got a handcart to go pick up a new cylinder with my wife — I can’t remember why she came. We locked the house and hid our keys in the usual secret spot. But when we got back, they were gone. I had to break into my own house. Then the guy arrived with a gun inside a bag, so we knew he was serious. I saw him on his way up to the door and shouted, it’s the police!, then ran to my room to get my machete — but it wasn’t there. I don’t know why. He came in and pushed me in the chest, throwing me onto the bed. The printing press was in the next room.
Don’t move because my finger is on the trigger, he said. Then he cuffed me and took me away. He’d caught me red handed.
Where were you taken after being arrested?
They took me to a basement on their base [in Vila Velha].
And what happened when you got there?
What happened to everyone else? Two guys on top of me, slaps, electric shocks, beatings. The same they did with the others. They shocked Jorge Luiz’s genitals quite a bit. One day they put me in with Jorge Luiz and I was already saying I couldn’t take any more. I was trying to see if Jorge Luiz would talk. But then I told myself, whatever, that’s on his conscience, not mine.
[It was unclear if he meant that he was trying to see if Jorge Luiz was cracking, but he’d clearly concluded that whether or not he was, everyone bore their own responsibility for choosing to talk or not.]
Had you been in prison long when you met Jorge Luiz, or was that on the first day?
No, I think Jorge Luiz was brought in on my third day.
The third day you had been in prison?
That’s right. My third day in prison.
[At this point, I decided it was time to confront Foedes. My heart was beating fast, but he was stock still and ramrod straight in his chair, very composed, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Still I had to try.]
Tell me something, Foedes: did you rat out your companions?
Sure. I gave up everyone that I had to.
Did you give up my parents?
Oh, well, when I was arrested… I know what your problem is… I’ve been expecting you.
When I was arrested, I was arrested with the whole printing press. There was no way for me to say, I’m not a party member. That’s the first thing.
[Foedes stopped. He had an uncomfortable look on his face as he cleared his throat. Cláudio entered with two cups of coffee, apologizing for how bad it was, saying we should leave it on the floor if we didn’t want it. Eduardo held his cup, but didn’t drink — I later learned this was because, in his paranoia, he was worried that the coffee, given to us but not to Foedes or any of his family members, might’ve been poisoned. I needed the caffeine, so I took a gulp. Then Foedes snapped back.]
They’d gathered some intel already, like notes on the central committee and comrades in the regional committee. They knew what I knew, but with codenames. And when anything didn’t match up between their intel and mine, they’d torture me more. It was constant. I must have been tortured for a whole month.
And then I insisted, as registered in the following video:
[Somewhere deep inside, I sighed with relief. Finally, he’d admitted it. My heart was dancing, but I didn’t have time to process everything because half a second after his admission I had to jump right back in.]
You gave them up?
I gave them up under those conditions. Yes. I was going to tell you that in my story but I didn’t get to finish.
That part’s just very important to me.
Yes, but what I was talking about is very important to me. Why did I go down? Because Arlindo Sperandio gave me up. He knew who I was, where I worked, my name, and my past. They put that woman on the bus.
[I take another two sips of coffee. Eduardo is sitting dead still. There’s this wrenching feeling in my gut now.]
They found me pretty quickly and took me to prison. I don’t know if he’s alive now, but eventually Arlindo confessed this to me: I had to give you up because if I didn’t, I would die. So am I the only superhero here?
You’re a superhero?
No. I mean am I the only one everyone expects to be a superhero. The others gave people up, too.
But you said you gave people up. I don’t understand.
The superhero, my friend. The superhero everyone wishes I was. So everyone else who gave people up was within their rights, but I wasn’t? A dictatorship will beat the hell out of you like they did with Rubens Paiva [a notorious torture victim under the regime], Cordeiro Oest, Carlos Danielli, and so many others. Carlos Danielli was a militant in São Paulo. He only came to the central committee once or twice. I was never in São Paulo, yet everyone says he got caught because I gave up his name [in some kind of domino effect]. Come on, give me a break.
I’m glad you mentioned Lincoln Cordeiro Oest. That’s another doubt I have about your story. I have to ask: In your statement you say there was a meeting on Rua Cupertino in Rio de Janeiro with a member of the central committee. That’s in your statement. The member was Oest. People say that proves that Oest’s capture and subsequent death was your fault. How do you feel about that?
It doesn’t make me feel good, you know?
But did you say it? Cause it?
I did. I don’t feel good about it. No one that gives people up feels good about it. Even today I don’t feel good.
Do you still carry that with you?
Yes. I carry this stigma with me. Not just for him, but for everyone. Oest was a member of the central committee — one of the most important people in the Party. But even for Marcelo or Miriam or anyone else, I feel the same. It’s difficult — so difficult that I’ve never gone back into either bourgeois or leftist politics.
Why didn’t you try to find any of your comrades after your release?
Because I didn’t want to be in the Party anymore. I didn’t want to talk about this stuff. I’m only talking to you because you found me and these are the facts. I can’t deny the facts of what happened.
How do you feel?
I just told you. I don’t feel good.
And what is “not feeling good?” Can you describe it? Because Oest died after being tortured.
I know he died after being tortured.
So what is “not feeling good?” I want to understand. I want to know what Foedes feels.
Well, I feel… it’s not really regret. Because regret is something you feel when you say: I’m regretful, I won’t do that again. I don’t know if I would do this again if I was put in the same situation, you know what I mean? That’s why I stayed away from any organization. I couldn’t withstand what Danielli or Oest withstood.
Are you responsible for the death of Danielli?
Absolutely not. That’s a misattribution. Danielli lived in São Paulo. He was a militant in São Paulo. He was the Party’s military director. I saw Danielli a few times at the central committee. He helped us, along with Oest, but I didn’t know for sure what his name was or where he was working.
But you admit that you gave Oest up to the dictatorship?
Yes. I feel remorse. I’m heartbroken over what happened. I still feel it today, if that helps explain it. And I’m going to carry this with me until the day I die. Being an informant is really difficult in that way. But there are informants that give up information spontaneously, voluntarily, which wasn’t the case with me. For me, it was something I could not escape. Either I would inform, or I’d suffer the same fate as Danielli or Oest.
But he never gave up his companions.
Yes. And what happened? He died. That’s what I couldn’t take.
Did you know that Danielli told his torturers, I know where to find João Amazonas, Mauricio Grabois…
[Foedes raised his voice a second time and started shaking his index finger at me.]
I know he did and it was stupid of him. The Party’s central committee members weren’t realists. They didn’t know how to pretend. They didn’t know how to play politics. He didn’t need to say any of that.
But he’s a hero.
Yes. He’s a hero and he’s in his grave. He’d be a bigger hero if he was around today, still fighting for the Brazilian people. What he said was foolish. As the responsible head of the party he shouldn’t have said anything like that, because it just fired up the dictatorship’s hatred for him and got him killed.
[At this, for the first time during our conversation, I felt rage building up inside me — more uncomfortable than when he admitted to turning in my parents to their torturers or to his role in Oest’s death.]
So you chose to be a traitor instead of a hero?
You’re putting words into my mouth. I’m about to end this interview.
[Cláudio chimed in here:] This conversation is starting to sound more like an accusation.
[Foedes continued:] You’re putting words in my mouth. I just told you I was betrayed. There were loads of people in jail because they were betrayed by other companions we don’t even know about. I didn’t choose to become an informant. I chose to stay alive, because I knew that if I didn’t talk, if I didn’t hand people over, I’d die — not because I had a choice, but because their demands were simple: talk or die.
[Cláudio, tearing up, his voice cracking, added:] Do you want my father to break down or something? I’m almost 40. I’ve known this story since I was a child. I know my father’s grievances. That book about the Araguaia, I read it all. The story it tells. It made him really upset, because it isn’t the whole story, you know? He informed because other people informed on him before that. So if you want to interview him, okay, you interview him. But recognize that he spent all of the years after that suffering. These feelings he’s hidden, pushed away into a corner so that he wouldn’t have to deal with them — you’re here trying to dredge them up.
[I worried that the interview would end then and there. But in a wave of calmness, Foedes broke the silence:]
In the Araguaia, guerrillas were arrested who’d never fired a shell. They were forced to pump water into the barracks because they didn’t have electricity. Parasites were eating their legs. They’d made every concession the soldiers demanded of them, and when they wouldn’t do the dirty work at the barracks anymore the soldiers took them into the woods and shot them in the head. They left their bodies there.
The dictatorship’s only logic, in the end at least, was to kill, kill, and kill. Those militants could have given up anyone (that wasn’t my situation), but if he was a guerilla, they’d just kill him because they wanted to. [Ernesto] Geisel [the President of Brazil from 1974 to 1979, during the dictatorship] gave an interview once where he said: Well, dear reporters, there’s nothing else to do. You just have to kill them.
Your old comrades, including my parents, say that you didn’t suffer. When they arrived at the base, they say they saw you and you didn’t have any marks of torture. Did you know that?
[The soldiers] were great at torturing people without leaving marks. The only mark would have been death. Torture — being suffocated with plastic bags — doesn’t leave marks.
But they say you weren’t tortured. What do you say to that?
I’d say that while I was being interrogated, they weren’t in the room. How were they going to see it? When you’re tortured, they don’t put you in a public square and say, come watch the torture! They take you to a secluded place where no one can hear you most of the time. That’s what happened at [the fort]-people were tortured in the basement.
What sort of torture did they use on you?
A lot of electric shocks. Electric shocks to the ears, on the genitals. Beatings, psychological torture — that thing they’d do with the dogs, for example, was psychological torture. Your mother mentioned it. They’d never actually let those dogs bite the prisoner’s face. But it’s still a very violent form of torture.
So you were tortured?
I was tortured. Waterboarding. They’d drag us out on trips in the middle of the night…
Punches and kicks? Physical violence, too, besides the shocks? Did they beat you?
I’d get hit — mainly on the ears. They didn’t give me any electric shocks. But I’d get beaten — hit on the ear. That was the first round when I arrived. After, came the dogs.
You said they did shock you.
The shocks came the next day. I’d resisted, so they took me to the barracks. About a month later they took me to Rio, and I wasn’t tortured anymore there. But at the base, a team from Rio came to torture me.
Who tortured you?
Today, even if I used to know, I couldn’t tell you. My memory is starting to go. I can’t help you with a name, not even if I saw his face.
Captain Guilherme: do you remember him?
Him, I remember.
Was he involved in torturing?
He was. Captain Guilherme was a criminal.
You said, earlier, that Danielli wasn’t very intelligent.
No. He was foolish. It wasn’t that he wasn’t intelligent. He was. But he was foolish. A man in a political struggle has to do anything he can to deceive his opponent. If you can’t deceive them, then just don’t provoke them. Yet he was there, in their hands, imprisoned, and provoking them. What do you expect? They tortured him even more.
But you said he was foolish and could still be here today helping in political struggles. Have you gotten involved in political activism since then? Because you survived.
No. These days I have my own beliefs and that’s enough. I don’t engage with politics at all. With this current government in power, I don’t even vote anymore because I’m over 70 [and mandatory voting laws don’t require the elderly to go to the polls]. I haven’t voted for the last few elections.
Brazilian leftist politics are just ridiculous. It’s all justified by just saying, let’s take money from the bourgeoisie and fund the struggle of the proletariat. That’s probably what José Dirceu [ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s former chief-of-staff, convicted in 2012 of organizing a congressional vote buying scheme] and his cronies say [to justify their actions]. Legally [the members of the sitting government, mired in scandal] are left wing criminals. I don’t agree with [their tactics]. Today the Communist Party is revisionist. I haven’t read their literature, but I know that’s true. The Worker’s Party [Dirceu’s party] commits crimes against Brazil.
Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? You say Danielli was foolish for not surviving because he could have played a role in politics today, but you survived and you don’t have any political involvement at all.
I’m not comparing myself to him, you are. I’ve apologized and admitted how much it disturbs me that I gave up my comrades. But if I was in Danielli’s place, I wouldn’t have provoked them.
What would you say to your comrades if you met them now? My name is the one you gave my father: Matheus.
[Impatiently] I’d say that it was impossible for me not to give up their names — especially the ones from our regional committee.
I’m also credited with giving up another of my comrades: the brother of José Maurílio Patrício [a militant from Espírito Santo killed in the Araguaia]. That’s another case where I want it known that I didn’t gave him up. I never met Maurílio. He went up north to join the fight, but I didn’t send him. Yet that Araguaia book implied that I gave them his name. The only one who knew him well enough for that would have been his own brother.
If you met my mother, my father, Jorge Luiz, Oest, would you apologize for giving up their names?
That’s the least I could do. I’d ask their forgiveness. I’m genuinely sorry for having given them up. It’s like I said, I stayed away from the Party because even if I could stand up and be forgiven for what I’d done, I’d still know that I wouldn’t have been able to survive if I hadn’t done what I’d done. I wasn’t born for it.
If I’d have known that could have happened, I’d never have joined the Party in the first place. Even though we always said we could handle it, when push comes to shove, my boy, it’s nothing to do with whether or not you want to hold out — it’s whether you’re built strong enough to stand it.
And you weren’t built for it?
No, I wasn’t.
The Sacred And The Secular.
[Foedes broke off and invited us to dinner with his family, but I politely declined, explaining that it was already too late and we were far from Vitória. Then he launched into a new part of his story:]
I’m from a dysfunctional peasant family. Most of them were illiterate. I got the furthest in my education, but I didn’t get a university degree, although I prepared for it. I even graduated secondary school [he was the first in his family to do so — a big accomplishment for a poor boy at the time].
Everyone [in the Party] had their own lawyer and their own people. There was no solidarity when it came to finding me a lawyer. I had to defend myself with a defense attorney provided by the dictatorship who did nothing to try to save me. He showed up and did just enough to earn his salary.
That’s true, isn’t it? Did anyone imprisoned around that time try to find me a lawyer? I was the only really helpless one there because I was left alone to face the dictatorship. They could have just disappeared me.
Couldn’t they have disappeared everyone else too?
No. It’d have been different. If I disappeared, I’d never be mentioned in the news. I’d just burn up like a card.
Did anyone ever give you any compensation? [Starting in the 2000s, the state began to pay indemnities to those who claimed they’d been persecuted during the dictatorship.]
No, and I don’t want any.
The time they took me out at night for a drive and left me in the middle of nowhere only to come back for me at 11 PM the next day — if they’d killed me then, that’d have been that. I’d have just disappeared. I hadn’t even been officially arrested at that point. I only formally signed my sentencing papers 27 days into my stay at the prison. Until then I’d just technically been kidnapped. Think about that.
I’m not trying to justify anything. I’m still guilty over my role in the Party’s struggles. The Party was so important to me that I abandoned my family to join up. My three children with my ex-wife all became criminals because I wasn’t there to support them. Two were killed by the cops in an armed robbery. That’s the pain I carry. Back then, it was hard to work while in the Party. Even Oest had to abandon his family to dedicate himself to it.
Foedes, I’ve been looking for you for a while. I think people pay a lot of attention to their parents’ lives. I’m a spectator of my parents’ lives and Cláudio’s one of yours. Did you know my mother was pregnant when she was arrested?
No, I didn’t. Party members’ private lives stayed private. No one would have told me anything non-political.
I heard so many stories from my parents. I didn’t want to come here just to say, you were the informant. I came here to tell you that I’ve been looking for you all my life. In truth, I am and I am not a part of this story you’re telling. Somehow everything that happened has had a profound influence on my life. And I want to tell you that, to me, despite everything that happened, you’re forgiven. I know you’re not asking me for that, but I wanted you to know that before I go.
I hope you’ll give your parents a big hug from me and ask them to forget the past we all endured. I’m certain they suffered more than I did — not just under the dictatorship, but under its legacy, which weighs on every Brazilian, not just Party members. It was hard under the dictatorship for everyone. You had to stay silent. Women weren’t allowed to play soccer. I’d like to ask them, if they think they can do it, to forgive me. I couldn’t take what Oest or Danielli endured, and that’s why I stayed away from the Party afterwards.
How did you find me here, by the way? People here only know me as Edson.
Were you in hiding, Foedes?
No. Foedes was the name my father gave me. He got it from some Turkish man he knew in [Porto] Algere when I was born. But eventually he regretted naming me that because people made fun of “Foedes.” So he started calling me Edson. You know what? Foedes is a unique name. No one else has it. So I’ll never be accused of a crime I didn’t commit. At least that’s one thing you can say about the name. I’ll keep using it.
[Eduardo, who’d held his coffee for over an hour without taking a sip, set it down and spoke for a change:] Do you know what the name Foedes means?
I don’t. Do you?
“It means loyal in Latin”, said Eduardo, making his best etymological guess, likely thinking of the term fides (although it’s just as likely that the name comes from the Arabic name Faiz, used by Turks as well, which means victory).
[I thought about that for a moment, then asked Foedes another question:]
Are you religious?
No. I’m really secular. And agnostic.
What about Cláudio?
Cláudio is a member of a nearby church.
Cláudio, are you Christian?
[Cláudio:] I am.
I belong to the Casa de Oração.
[One of my cousins was a pastor in their church in another state. It was an evangelical church connected to the Gospel Hall Brethren of the United Kingdom. I asked Cláudio if anyone had ever tried to minister to his father. He told me that friends and brothers had tried, but that he was a solid atheist.]
[Foedes chimed in:] That’s not right. I’m not an atheist. I’m an agnostic secularist. There’s a big difference.
I dragged the conversation this way because I want you to know that I’m a Christian too.
[Cláudio:] That explains your forgiveness.
[Foedes:] I’ll say this: I respect all beliefs. The Bible is a source of antique history. There’s some distorted information in it, but the key bits are true. Jesus Christ existed. But instead of being a preacher, he should have been a politician or general. His beliefs were the same as Danielli’s: the need to poke the devil with a short stick. He’d go to the temples and provoke the religious order and he accepted the consequences.
[All of us talked for a while about God, faith, and spirituality. Cláudio got overwhelmed, tearing up and pointing to me as he croaked to Foedes:]
He’s the answer to my prayers. How many times have I asked for someone to come and minister to you? Dad, if you don’t believe it, I know he’s the answer to my prayers. He didn’t come here for nothing.
[Foedes replied:] I’d love to have this certainty the faithful possess. But they say you either have faith or you don’t. You can’t just ask for it. I don’t have it. What can I do?
I just noticed, your hair looks like your father’s.
You think I look like him?
At least the hair does. Your father wore it like that.
I really hope you find what I’ve found: faith.
I’m very skeptical. I don’t know.
My name is Matheus Leitão Netto, okay?
[I started to stand up but Foedes stops me:] I want to ask you something. Now I’m the interviewer.
Go right ahead.
Your father was a doctor. Did he graduate?
He couldn’t graduate. When he got out, [Legal Decree] 477 took away his right to study.
I remember from prison that he had tachycardia.
Yes, he was very sick. He lost his rights and became a journalist.
Is he still a non-believer or is he religious?
[This question caught me because my father is a secularist and argues just like Foedes.]
That question makes me feel weird. He’s a non-believer like you. I’m wondering if you taught him that.
He did study dialectic materialism.
I didn’t go around converting people.
It’s not a problem if you taught him. You were the state Party head. He was in the regional command.
We only met once every two weeks for about an hour. They were secretarial meetings where we discussed any issues we had in our respective areas and what we should do to advance the political struggle.
But did you talk to my father about things like that?
Back then, we were all extremists, following Chinese Marxist teachings. We believed in all that stuff. But bit-by-bit we could see the Soviet Union and its satellite countries falling, China and Cuba on their way to capitalism. Once the Fidel Castro generation dies, Cuba will become capitalist, so what does that tell you?
First, it’s a testament to the power of capitalism. Second, it tells you that the theory from each according to his ability, to each according to his need doesn’t accord with the aspirations of mankind. Men want to take on challenges and invent things. Men want to make progress. Communism restricts that. It doesn’t represent the everyday interests of the population. Mostly it’s because the population is widely religious. That’s what communism is afraid of — it always tries to pull people from faith towards materialism.
[Cláudio interjected with a thought I shared as well:]
Religion is flawed. His religion, if you followed it, is flawed. Mine is flawed. You don’t follow a religion. You go to a place where people share your beliefs. But religion alone can’t save you.
It’s a lifestyle.
[Cláudio replied:] A lifestyle. Jesus didn’t leave us a religion.
If I were bolder, I’d ask you to let me pray for you.
[Cláudio interjected:] Well, it is my house.
[Foedes consented:] Go on. I’d be honored if you’d say a prayer for me.
[Cláudio and I looked at each other. We understood each other. We had similar beliefs. I held his hand.]
Our God, we thank you for this day and for everything that has happened in it. Father, on this night I ask you to bless Foedes, Cláudio, and their family. I ask, if your heart wishes it, that Foedes may find you. As Paul the Apostle once found you and transformed his life, I wish the same for Foedes.
Two and a half hours after meeting Foedes, I left the ranch, bound for Vitória. I had around 100 miles of exhausting, winding roads ahead of me. But the dirt tracks and darkness no longer frightened me.
“Relief,” I said to Eduardo, glancing in the rear-view mirror to watch dust billow behind the car.
“Relief,” I repeated, feeling the hook that’d been buried in me for so long start to loosen.
My cell phone suddenly had reception again, so I pulled over onto a side road and called my mother to let her know the basics of what’d happened, illuminated only by the light of the occasional passing truck in a pitch black night.
My father’s number went to voicemail, so I left a message repeating much of what I’d told my mother:
Then I called Vladimir.
“So you’re out of the woods?”
“I met Foedes.”
“Did you interview him?”
“What did he say?”
“He admitted to giving up mom, dad, and Oest.”
“He almost killed me. That son of a bitch.”
Midway through our chat, my wife, Flávia, called on the other line, so I cut Vladimir off.
“I was worried about you,” she said. “You wouldn’t pick up.”
“Hey, get this: Foedes’s son is a Christian,” I said, knowing that even in her distress this was the kind of thing she’d want to hear first.
“I told you God would open a door for you. I could feel it.”
“He stayed with us the whole time we were talking. He said it was the answer to his prayers.”
“Because his father needs to be liberated. You see?”
Coming down the hill, we turned on some Kanye West. “Jesus Walks” played, wherein he raps about Christianity. It was Eduardo’s album. I didn’t know the song, but he explained it giddily:
They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus.
“In the song, he talks about his dream of seeing people in the club, singing ‘Jesus Walks.’ He dreamed it, and it happened. That’s why it’s genius.”
Kanye’s brilliant bid at preaching without preaching got me thinking about how Christians often go about spreading their message with the wrong, overly blunt techniques.
“I knew you were a Christian,” I said. “But not so much that you’d pray for Foedes [with me].”
I mentioned the heated moment when I thought the interview was going to fall apart. But Eduardo told me the part that had him most nervous was when Foedes said: I’ve been expecting you.
“It was like a line from a Bond villain!” he said. “I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Bond.”
It was 1:30 AM by the time we sat down with two (finally) decent cups of coffee to chat more about the evening.
“You had that cup of coffee for two hours,” I said, “and you never drank a sip.”
“I just held it, thinking that I didn’t want to drink this crap.”
“I thought,” I said, laughing, “he’s not drinking it because he thinks it’s poisoned.”
“And when you drank it, I thought: I can’t believe he drank that crap — he’s going to die mid-interview! I spilled some on the floor accidentally, but I just kept holding it. There was no way I was going to drink poison. I was being a jerk. My faith in humanity went out the window. I was thinking, why did he make this fucking coffee for us, but not for his father? Something’s wrong.”
At 3 AM, an e-mail from my mother showed up in my inbox:
“Thank you. You found the answer to a question from before your birth. [A definitive answer about Foedes’s role in their arrest.]”
Eduardo looked me over for a moment, then he said:
“You’ve had a mentally exhausting day. You’ll need a while to process it all. Be patient with your feelings.”
Those Who Can Forgive.
I slept for less than four hours. I was still wired, thinking about everything that happened in Garrafão. Early the next morning, I started scheduling interviews for that day with other ex-communist militants in Espírito Santo to see what else their memories of 1972 could add to the story Foedes had told me.
First, I met with Magdalena, always one of the first people I’d talk to about these events. When we arrived at her home in the Vitória neighborhood of Manguinhos, I showed her the photo of Foedes’s face and she started to sob silently. She was sure that Foedes had betrayed her, a pregnant girl, to torture.
“I forgive him,” she said, crying. “But he’s not someone I want to be a part of my life.”
I realized then that the choice to forgive Foedes and his ilk, a forgiveness which the nation’s general amnesty for those involved with the regime had foisted upon us all, was one that only the generation of ’68 (the name we often use to refer to those who fought against the regime) could make.
And they all had wildly varied opinions as to whether he should have been forgiven, as the amnesty allowed, or not. From my parents to Beth Madeira to Jorge Luiz. When I met Beth Madeira in Vitória, she too was quick to pardon him:
“I don’t believe he was tortured. I don’t forgive him.”
“You won’t get in,” she told me. “But go up to the gate and take a look.”
She said I’d see a statute of the Virgin Mary at the entrance. That’s where my grandmother had prayed for my father. It was also where my mother and her father had reunited with a hug when she’d gotten out of prison.
As we approached the still-operational base I saw huge black letters on a white wall to my right: 38th Infantry Battalion, the same unit which had held my parents. Eduardo stopped the car and turned on the high beams. We agreed that he’d film me walking up and getting turned away by the guards, then call it a night. I stepped out of the car, dead tired, and walked about 50 yards. As I approached the walls, a soldier in uniform with a machine gun walked towards me.
Suddenly, a car pulled up beside me, rolling down its window. I told the soldier my story was long, so he should talk to the man in the car fist. The driver was on his way to pick up someone inside, so he was waved through. But before I could speak, the driver, a man I’ve never met before, turned to me and asked:
“Do you want a ride, man?”
“That’d be great,” I replied instinctively, walking to the passenger-side door.
“You’re going into the base?” asked the soldier.
I nodded, yes. I got into the car and drove in. The driver, Alex Sandro Franscoviaki, handed me his card. It was a black rectangle with his name and a biblical quote: When God acts, who can oppose His way?
“Anytime you need a great taxi,” he said. “Give me a call.”
I was getting quite worried that someone might catch me here without permission. Sneaking in could have dire consequences. Then I wondered how I would get back out and I started to panic as Alex zipped along the internal avenues. To one side I could see a building lit in yellow and green like the Brazilian flag. On the radio, I heard an evangelical testimony. Not trusting the security to be so lax on my way out, I asked if he’d be able to take me back with him, but he said that he was picking up a client. I insisted that I really needed a ride and he told me that I could try to give him a call later.
My phone started to ring and I suddenly realized that Eduardo was still sitting outside, worrying.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Man, I really don’t know.”
“Were you arrested? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine for now,” I said, eager to not say too much in the car. “I’ll call you later.”
“Where’s the party?” Alex asked a woman, who pointed to the illuminated building.
I heard loud music and saw a group of four soldiers, some out of uniform, talking on the steps. I started taking a video on my cellphone and walked up the stairs into a party of 50 people in a big ballroom. I saw children, teenagers, soldiers, some in uniforms and some in plainclothes, all celebrating what looked like a cadet graduation ceremony. A little girl wearing a dress and tights was playing next to me. Men and woman helped themselves to drinks and snacks. I was invisible to them all in the hubbub of conversation and the din of the music. “Índios” by the Brazilian rock group Legião Urbana played as I walked in. Through the speakers, I heard them sing:
“I wish that just once I could believe in everything for a moment. Believe that the world is perfect. Believe that everyone is happy. I wish that just once I could make everyone see His name in everything. Nobody ever thanks Him. I wish that just once, like the most beautiful native tribe, I wouldn’t be attacked for my innocence. I wanted the danger and I bled alone.”
Almost 42 years to the day after my parents were tortured by the military here, now members of the same institution stood and danced about as if nothing evil had ever happened on these grounds.
I was still worried about getting caught. Then I saw a sign for Fort São Francisco Xavier da Barra, the building where my parents had been imprisoned. I called Eduardo to explain what was going on.
“I’ll be there in five minutes,” he said, confident that he would be able to drive straight through by feigning business at the party like Alex.
I left the event and wandered around the base, trying to get my bearings. The Bay of Vitória looked even more beautiful by night. The sounds of the sea and the wind rippling through the flags on the fort, even the clang of a bell on the neck of a goat somewhere, wafting up over antique cannons on the ramparts made the evening feel idyllic and calm. Eventually I found a sign posted on a nearby wall that read:
“This place, the historic site commemorating the moment the Portuguese crown established the tract of land that would become Espírito Santo, is dedicated to the memory of the Brazilian Army and the formation of the society of Espírito Santo natives, which will help us to spread our culture and knowledge, bringing the army and the people closer.
“The Brazilian Army: Strong Arm, Helping Hand.”
The plaque sickened me. I thought about the Army’s torture of unarmed, young citizens, conveniently unmentioned in public commemorations like this. Victims’ stories were always met with silence and denial.
That’s when Eduardo found me, disoriented. My head was spinning from the contradictions of this place. We walked back towards the party. I looked at the buffet table and thought, I’ll never eat this food. I won’t even drink the water. But Eduardo wanted to bilk this free food and drink for all it was worth.
That year, 2014, turned my stomach as well. A rabid minority had taken to the streets of Brazil in outrage at the nation’s unfolding economic decline and governmental scandals, demanding the return of military rule.
I found a timeline etched into another wall, recording the Army’s 20th century campaigns, and my ire grew:
“1956: The president deploys of a battalion to the Suez Canal as part of the UN Emergency Force.
“1995: A mission of military observers is sent to Ecuador and Peru.
“2004: The army participates in the beginning of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti.”
This triumphal, self-congratulatory plaque neglected to mention 1972: Here, the Army tortured political prisoners. Here, we locked away a 19-year-old girl with a boa constrictor. Here, we kicked the wind out of a pregnant woman. Here, we let a 23-year-old be tortured, scarring and destroying whole families.
I kept wandering through the base, looking for something. Maybe I’d find the saw I knew my father had hidden there to use in an escape attempt. I went through a set of doors I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to enter and walked up the stairs to a cell much like the ones my mother would have been locked in during her first days there. I leaned in close to the door and whispered, hoping perhaps that my words would travel back to 1972:
“I’m sorry for getting here so late.”
Standing by this torture cell, I felt a great sense of solidarity with my parents, Vladimir, Magdalena, Beth Madeira, Jorge Luiz, and all the others who were caught in the chaos 42 years earlier. These rooms weren’t designed to brutalize citizens. They were intended to help protect Brazil and its people.
Outside the building, back in the car with Eduardo, I called my mother again.
“After you called me before, I wanted to be alone, you know?” she said. “So I went off to a corner and sang to myself quietly for a while. I sang Assum Preto [a song by the northeastern musician Luiz Gonzaga, which she’d recited constantly while imprisoned, so much so that all of her cell block mates learned how to sing it too — it was their prison anthem]. Then I thought about how you wouldn’t be able to get into the base.”
“It’s unbelievable,” I said. “We went to film me trying to get in and this guy showed up and asked, do you want a ride? I got into the car and now I’m in the base. Where were you locked up?”
“There’s a big, long building facing the sea. That’s where your dad was. I was in the 17th century fort, São Francisco Xavier, which was just above a little beach.”
“I was just there. There’s a party going on. It’s unbelievable.”
“Did you go up the stairs?”
“Did you see the little beach?”
“I’m looking at it now,” I said, staring out the car window.
“Someone from the Communist Party gave you a ride?” she asked, assuming I’d come with one of their old friends. “Get out of there. The soldiers will find you soon,” she added, genuinely worried about what the military might do to someone wandering around where he shouldn’t be.
“This is unbelievable.”
“What’s the party? A wedding?”
“No. It’s a graduation or something. I went in and there were all these soldiers. It made me feel really bad,”
“That’s how it was then.”
“I felt totally helpless.”
“I know the feeling. It’s an old fort and now they rent it out for parties because the Army’s broke. It probably looks a lot less sinister with a party going on, doesn’t it?”
“No, it still looks really disquieting. Believe me.”
“My cell was on the side, in a corner facing the hill. Taking me down that hill, that’s when they told me they’d kill me.”
I hung my head in silence for a moment as we passed the hill in question.
“There’s the fort and the new section — the bureaucratic part where the commander’s office is,” my mother continued. “There’s a corridor there where Captain Guilherme had an office, with an auditorium at the end. Back then, that room didn’t have any chairs or tables — just a small platform. That’s where they locked me up with the snake. Those were crazy times. They killed people for so little.”
Standing in the party at the base, everything had started to come into focus for me. Foedes, who’d always been the enemy in my mind, had made mistakes that many people can’t forgive. But the dictatorship created informants like him. He wasn’t my enemy after all.
“The Army was the enemy, mom,” I said. “I’m sure of that now. You were right. Captain Guilherme is next.”
Matheus Leitão is an award-winning Brazilian reporter for publications such as Época Magazine, Folha de S. Paulo, and IG. Leitão was the first journalist to broadcast video of former Federal District Governor José Roberto Arruda taking bribes. From August 2011 and July 2012, he worked at UC Berkeley as a Visiting Scholar. He currently runs his own, eponymous blog.
Originally published at May 27h 2015 at http://brio.media