The Brazilian Holocaust: Memories of the Colony of Barbacena

Giovanna Diniz
Jun 17, 2019 · 12 min read

What happens when human evil is graced by the State?

“Children on the ground, among flies, no toys, no psychiatrists whatsoever […] Crippled people, crawling on the ground, crawled, grouped so they would not be trampled at mealtimes. Waiting for the litter, freedom only possible through death. A medieval asylum, stone and iron bars, damp, cold and undesirable, cells and electroshocks, and all medical torture. No assistance or human warmth. As in a concentration camp.” — Hiram Firmino, 1979.

Tourists who visit the city of Barbacena, located in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, with its extensive green fields and its cultivation of roses scattered like carpets, would never have imagine that such a place would be the scene of one of the greatest hygienist and segregative atrocities ever committed by the Brazilian State itself, with the connivance of the country’s medical and political class.

“We suffered a lot. The patients stayed in the cells, which had until time. I had those thick injections and we got soaked [under the influence of drugs]. We did not go out, we were alone in the yard. It also had shocks. “- Elza Campos, survivor interviewed by the brazilian newspaper O Globo in 2010.

Inaugurated on October 12, 1903, the asylum was installed in the province due to an old idea — defended to date by some doctors — that its mild climate would make the mentally or tuberculosis patients quieter and less distant, supposedly facilitating the treatment.

The hospital in 1905.

While the Colony Hospital’s plan was primarily to treat people with mental disorders, the place eventually became a death camp for anyone, no matter what they did.

While 60.000 victims succumbed to ill-treatment, others — a few — survived to tell the story.

This is the case of Pedro “Perereca” Paulo Mendes, 67, interviewed by the local newspaper Vila de Utopia in the middle of 2018. “I spent four weeks walking from Barbacena to Belo Horizonte, hiding in the bush… I drank from my urine not to die of thirst. If I had not run away, I would not be here today”, he said as he participated in the public ceremony in celebration of National Anti-Asylum Fight Day, which has been celebrated since 1987 across the country.

At the time, Pedro was 24 years old and had been living in Colony for five months. Until then, he had not been diagnosed with any mental disorder: In fact, about 70% of Colony patients had no diagnosis of any psychological disorder: Many were just alcoholics, wanderers, politicians, unwanted children, epileptics, political enemies of the Elite prostitutes, homosexuals, rape victims, and people who simply did not conform to the normative standard of the day, such as shy men and women with a sense of leadership or who did not wish to marry.

Much of the population of the Colony Hospital was also of black ethnicity.

Since Colony did not only treat people of the city, many came from outside, disembarking by train.

In 1933, the brazilian writer Guimarães Rosa, who worked briefly as a doctor in the Colony, called the place a “crazy train”.

Years later, in 1962, Rosa would publish a tale inspired on the occasion, entitled “Soroco, its mother, its daughter”:

It was not an ordinary passenger carriage […] in one of the rooms the windows were surrounded by bars, made of jail, for the prisoners. […] It would serve to take two women away, forever.

The hospitalization of these people was justified by presidential decree 24.559 of 1934, downloaded by former president Getúlio Vargas, in which anyone could request the hospitalization of someone in a psychiatric hospital with only a medical certificate.

Art. XI: The hospitalization of toxic and habitual intoxicated psychopaths in psychiatric establishments, public or private, will be made:

a) by court order or request of a police authority,

b) at the request of the patient himself or at the request of the spouse, father or son or relative up to the fourth degree inclusive, and failing that, by the conservator, guardian, hospital director civil or military, director or president of any social assistance society, lay or religious, head of the psychiatric clinic or even some interested party, stating the nature of their relations with the patient and the reasons for their request.

In short: it was necessary to get rid of scum, social evil and annoyance in a place where no one could have access.

“When they got to the hospital, people were separated by sex, age, and physical characteristics. They were obliged to deliver their belongings, even if they had the minimum, including clothes and shoes.[…] Everyone went through the collective bath, often cold. The men had their hair shaved in a manner similar to that of the prisoners of war.” — Arbex

Their documents were confiscated and the patients who did not carry their identities were renamed by the officials. They were given a blue denim uniform, which was not enough to protect them from the cold of the city.

They were then separated into two groups: those who could work and those who did not have working conditions — similar to the human logistics employed in Auschwitz camps.

With Law 24.559 approved, the number of patients increased considerably: in 1960, there were five thousand people living where two hundred fit, as there were no more doctors in the Colony: opening to the four winds the real — and obvious — purpose of this.

To deal with overcrowding, beds were replaced with grasses, a suggestion by the head of the Department of Neuropsychiatric Care of Minas Gerais, José Consenso Filho.

The proposal of “grass beds” was so successful that it was recommended by the Government in 1959 to other hospitals in the state of Minas Gerais.

The inmates were also dying of cold: on cold nights in the hospital, located in Mantiqueira Mountains, many people had their clothes wet and were placed on the patio. To try to survive, they all stayed together and took turns in the middle for the tips, to withstand the cold. They also slept in crowds and often those on the bottom did not survive because they had been suffocated.

They slept together in large rooms without a bed. Everyone had to lie down on the floor of the room, which was covered only by grass. They woke up around 5 am and were sent to the courtyards, where they stayed till 7 pm, every day. […] Barbacena is a very cold city. Even today it has very low temperature by Brazilian standards. People were kept naked in the courtyards in total idleness.” — Arbex

Many women cried when they were forced to undress for sorting.

“Nudes in body and identity, abducted humanity, men, women and even children eats rats and feces, drank sewage or urine, slept on grass, were beaten and raped to death.” — Arbex

Pregnant women, forced to have children born of rape, adopted a measure as striking as it was hopeless: to protect their babies, they rubbed feces in their bellies to become disgusting. At birth, at least thirty children were abducted and “adopted” by “good families”: rich — and white couples.

In addition to being forced to work manually, the inmates still had to deal with physical and psychological torture, shock therapy and Scottish showers for no apparent reason: such torture was applied for the purpose of serving only as punishment or because of persecution stemming from lack of affinity between patients and employees. Sometimes the electroshocks were so many and so strong that the overload knocked over the county’s network.

With the high mortality rate in the Colony, the nearby cemetery had no more space to accommodate so many dead.

Aiming for an alternative, corrupt officials found in body-dealing a way to mitigate the situation and profit from it — several universities around the country commissioned the remains of the victims of the Colony for their Anatomical Laboratories, such as the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) School of Medicine. When the demand was low, the bodies were dissolved in acid: about 1.823 had this end.

“I do not know why they took me in. After I lost my job, everything went out of control, I was sent to the hospital, where I was naked, although there was a lot of laundry in the laundry room. — Antônio Gomes da Silva, survivor.

Some people tried to denounce what was happening there, but to no avail: The authorities were omitted and the medical community repressed the professionals who tried to do something about it. In the 60’s, the magazine “O Cruzeiro” did a story denouncing the conditions of the place and shocked the country — but the subject soon fell into oblivion.

Basaglia, em foto de 1979.

It was only in 1979, a year after the revocation of the AI-5 (in English: Institutional Act Number Five; the fifth of seventeen major decrees issued by the military dictatorship in the years following the 1964 coup d’état in Brazil), that Hiram Firmino, then a journalist for “O Estado de Minas” was able to enter the site for the very first time. His report (which can be checked here) caught the attention of Franco Basaglia, an Italian psychiatrist and psychiatric reform theorist who led to the opening of all asylums in Italy in 1973.

Franco came to Brazil in 1979 for a series of lectures, and was invited by Antônio Soares Simone, a psychiatrist from Minas Gerais, to visit a series of public hospitals in that state; among them, the Colony.

At the end of his visit, Basaglia called a press conference and denounced the inhumane conditions of the hospital, comparing it to a Nazi camp.

The repercussion of the accusation increased the pressure on the public power and it became more difficult to prevent further visits, making possible the filming of Helvécio Ratton’s 1979 documentary “Em nome da razão”.

During the filming, one of the interns grabbed Ratton by the arm and told him, “I know what you’re doing […] taking a picture of everyone, so when we die, people will know we’ve been here.”

The smell of this place is indescribable. It is the smell of sweat, of feces, of suffering, of crowded people, of lack of hygiene “ — Helvécio Ratton

Adding all this to the controversial surroundings of Basaglia’s statements and the scenes portrayed in the documentary, a restructuring of the Brazilian Psychiatric Reform was established, which defined new guidelines for mental health, surpassing the manicomial model that had lasted since the Vargas era: The Project of Law 3657 in 1989, proposed by the Federal Deputy of Minas Gerais, Paulo Delgado (PT = The Workers’ Party, a democratic socialist political party in Brazil), inspired the strongly libertarian and egalitarian guidelines of the SUS (Brazil’s publicly funded health care system) and is an important, if not fundamental, component of the redemocratization effort in the country.

The Colony’s closure occurred progressively during the 1980s.

Some patients who survived barbarism today receive follow-up at Barbacena’s Psychiatric Hospital Center, or at CAPS (Psychosocial Attention Center) centers spread throughout the region. Despite the change, the aftermath of dark times does not allow full resocialization: there is no investigation to date of the death of more than 60,000 deaths in the hospital, as well as the sale of bodies to Minas colleges.

Efforts were made to mitigate the consequences of the episode and to heal wounds still open. Law 10.216, approved in April 2001, intensified the improvement in the treatments of the patients: the isolation was replaced by the familiar and ambulatory coexistence.

Art. 1o

The rights and protection of people affected by mental disorder, which are dealt with in this Law, are ensured without any form of discrimination as to race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political choice, nationality, age, family, economic resources and the degree of severity or time of evolution of your disorder, or any other.

However, as we all know, overcrowding is becoming more and more recurrent in Brazil and the rest of the world.

Maurício Leão, president of the Minas Gerais Association of Psychiatry, considers it necessary to maintain the hospitals, especially for dealing with the most serious cases: “The ministry documents themselves provide 0.45 beds per hundred thousand inhabitants and today we do not have a tenth of that. […] Closing beds without creating options for attending serious cases, we can say that at the present time we live a period of lack of care in mental health.

According to CBN magazine:

With the reduction of beds, the service network ends up being overloaded. In Minas Gerais there are just over 300 psychosocial care centers that serve 200.000 patients per month. The psychologist Diego Pastana, specialist in Mental Health, claims more attention from the authorities to the system. “We have been experiencing a shortage of some inputs such as medicines and even HR, at some points in our care network. And when a work is organized in a network, if one of the points is weakened, another will suffer the reflexes of this lag.

Faced with this scenario, the most impaired ends up being the patient. Until last year, about 500 requests for compulsory hospitalization were waiting for vacancies to be filled in only one of the psychiatric hospitals in Belo Horizonte. This type of hospitalization is determined by Justice when the person can not have control over their psychological condition and in the state can take up to five years to be fulfilled.

“There are people who do not know the history of this hospital, and this is not something you can forget.” — Jairo Toledo, psychiatrist and former director of the Hospital Colonia de Barbacena.

As if the debate surrounding the Psychiatric Reform Law was no longer sufficient, we have to face the fact that the CIT (Tripartite Interagency Committee) — which in 2017 approved resolution nº 34, practically rescuing the asylum model and initiating a process of disassembly of everything the work built over decades in the scope of the Brazilian Psychiatric Reform — in 2019, another thump: the return of the electroshocks. This is because the hospitalization returns to the centrality and care takes an inverse course of what was being done by the National Mental Health Policy, through de-hospitalization. Such barbarism only proves to us that the injustice done by rich people is cyclical, not linear.

Only the medical and state omission was able to allow 60.000 innocent Brazilians to die in the worst possible conditions, with their bodies being discarded and later being sold to be dissected or simply dissolved in acid and having their existence completely erased: in short, an assisted genocide.

The physical, psychological and moral abuse of the victims has been perpetuated for almost a century. The recorded deaths almost surpass the numbers of the bloodiest dictatorships of Latin America: Chile and Argentina, together, number 65.000 dead. The Brazilian dictatorship established in 1964 contributed to the concealment and perpetuation of this cruel reality, and its aftermath continues to kill and torture new victims every day: they do not even have to put a finger on them for it. Omission and neglect with their survivors and descendants are hard enough.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” — Edmund Burke

This article is a translation of my original post published in Portuguese. You can check it here.

A special thanks to journalist and stronger defender of human rights Daniela Arbex for her excellent book “Holocausto Brasileiro” (no english translation) that inspired me to write this article. Thank you! Thank you for your long work in remembering things that people tried — for years — to play under the cloths! Credits also for: Jornal GGN, Caldeirão Político, IG, and CBN; whose information was crucial to the achievement of this article.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +787K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Giovanna Diniz

Written by

20y brazilian programmer and guitarist. u can read my articles in portuguese at @gvdiniz or wait for them to arrive here in english thanks to google translator.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Giovanna Diniz

Written by

20y brazilian programmer and guitarist. u can read my articles in portuguese at @gvdiniz or wait for them to arrive here in english thanks to google translator.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app