50th Anniversary of Dictatorship in Brazil: A French Torturer in South America

The original version of this article, written by Anne Vigna, was published by Agência Pública's website [pt], on 1 April 2014, the 50th anniversary of the military coup in Brazil. All links lead to websites in English unless otherwise stated.

The interview with Paul Aussaresses, published in the 23 November 2000 issue of Le Monde [fr], had an explosive impact in France and Algeria. For many years, historians and journalists had been searching for a soldier's testimony about the methods used by the French against militants from the National Liberation Front (FLN) during the Algerian War of Independence (1955-1962). Aussaresses, aged 82 at the time of the interview, admitted to torture and covering up murders, executions and death squads. He claimed to have no regrets. By the time of his death [pt] in December 2013, he had never revealed the identities of the members of his death squads.

Aussaresses was considered to be one of France's most skilled officials in counter-insurgency.

Aussaresses was considered to be one of France's most skilled officials in counter-insurgency.

For many years, Aussaresses's activities remained a mystery, with little known about his participation in the perpetration of the Brazilian military dictatorship and France's activities during that period. Then Rodrigo Nabuco, a historian originally from Rio de Janeiro who has lived in France for many years, began to delve into French government documents to bring to light the voice of the “executioner of Algiers” and his accounts of the time he spent time in South America. Nabuco's thesis [pt] “Conquering minds and trading weapons: French military diplomacy in Brazil” – the reports of the military attachés kept secret for 30 years in the French embassy.

The general in command

Aussaresses was considered one of France's most skilled officials in counter-insurgency. Trained in intelligence techniques in London during World War II, he became commander of the parachute brigade 11e Choc, the military arm of the French secret services overseas. Years later, in his first book [fr] of memoirs published in 2001, he clearly explained his mission:

Fazer o que chamávamos “guerra psicológica” [pt], em todos os lugares que fosse necessário, como na Indochina. Preparava meus homens para realizar operações clandestinas, colocação de bombas, ações de sabotagem ou a eliminação de inimigos.

To carry out what we called “psychological warfare“, in any place in which it was necessary, such as Indochina. I prepared my men to undertake clandestine operations, to place bombs, and to engage in acts of sabotage or elimination of the enemy.

Three years after France's defeat in Vietnam in 1957-58, French troops were victorious in the Battle of Algiers. Aussaresses played a vital role in the French parachutists’ victory, divided into operational zones and acting on “intelligence” – from the encirclement of targets to torture, executions and massacres that resulted in the “disappearances” of 4,000 people.

Algeria ended up winning independence in 1962, but France's experience of anti-guerilla warfare made them specialists in “revolutionary warfare” at a time when the United States was entering Vietnam. France promoted its military doctrine to its allies in the Cold War through magazines, books and courses led by Aussaresses himself in the United States. There, his influence remained. The 1956 film “The Battle of Algiers”, in which Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo denounces French troops’ killing, torture and lies – and which Aussaresses considered “marvellous, very true to reality” – was even shown in the Pentagon [pt]. 

Brazil, 11 September 1973

Admired around the world, with the profile of a soldier trained for torture and execution, the general appeared the ideal candidate to arrange the Pompidou government's diplomatic mission in Brazil during the ‘years of lead’. In his first reports from Brazil, Aussaresses recounts coming into contact with former pupils from his US courses. They “resulted in friendly contacts from a personal point of view but which were also useful for the services”, he wrote [fr]. 

Documento militar de Aussaresses.

He felt at home in the company of his friend, the general and future president João Batista Figueiredo, about to take on the leadership of the SNI (National Intelligence Service) in the Geisel government (1974). He was also close to the police deputy Sérgio Fleury, a torturer symbolic of the Brazilian dictatorship – he even mentioned him in his second book of memoirs “I haven't said everything yet” (“Je n’ai pas tout dit” [fr], in French, 2008) as head of the death squad. 

In an interview [pt] with the journalist Leneide Duarte-Plon following the publication of his book of memoirs, Aussaresses recounted a revealing episode about how the head of the French diplomatic mission, Michel Legendre, viewed the activities of his military attaché in Brazil:

Um dia o embaixador me disse: ‘Você tem amigos estranhos’. Eu respondi: ‘São eles que me permitem manter o senhor bem informado’. Ele não disse mais nada.

One day the ambassador said to me: ‘You have strange friends’. I replied: ‘They are the ones who allow me to keep you well-informed.’ He didn't say anything else.

Until recently, little was known about Aussaresses’ time in Brazil beyond what the general himself had revealed. On the Brazilian side, the archives remain closed. Journalist Lúcio Castro, during an investigation for an ESPN special report [pt] on Operation Condor, failed to obtain any official documentation from Itamaraty [the headquarters of Brazil's Ministry of External Relations] in response to a request for information about Aussaresses. The only documents sent by the Ministry were letters from the French embassy requesting visas for his daughters and other matters of minimal interest. Not even the general's date of arrival in Brazil can be found in the documents, which can be viewed on the website Documentos Revelados [pt] [Documents Revealed].

On the French side, however, revelations continue to emerge. The documents obtained by Nabuco are fundamental to understanding French attachés’ role in the Brazilian dictatorship and the trade in weapons. For example, Nabuco has used the documents to determine that the exact date of Aussaresses’ arrival in Brazil was 11 September 1973, noting that this was the same day as the military coup in Chile:

“Difícil acreditar em coincidência. Com a liberação dos documentos [sobre o golpe no Chile] nos últimos anos, não resta dúvida sobre o respaldo do Brasil ao golpe do Chile, e é impossível imaginar que um coronel paraquedista altamente especializado como ele, não haja dado ao menos sua opinião”, diz Nabuco.

“It's difficult to believe it was a coincidence. With the liberation of documents [regarding the coup in Chile] over the last few years, there can be no doubt as to Brazil's support of the Chilean coup, and it is impossible to imagine that a highly specialised, parachutist colonel like him would not at least have given his opinion”, says Nabuco.

Brazil and France: a long-standing relationship

Nabuco also notes that French participation in the Brazilian military dictatorship began before the coup in 1964:

A cooperação militar francesa com o Brasil é antiga e significativa desde os anos 1920, com as missões militares, o intercâmbio de oficiais em escolas militares, etc. Mas esta cooperação vai assumir um papel fundamental nos anos 1960, 1970, um papel nunca visto nem antes nem depois.

French military cooperation with Brazil is long-standing and has been significant since the 1920s, with military missions, swapping of officials in military colleges, etc. But this cooperation played a fundamental role in the 1960s and 1970s, a role seen neither before nor since this period.

The French saw the Brazilian dictatorship as an opportunity to recover their influence over military missions that had been lost to the Americans. In his book “A Ditadura Escancarada” [pt] [“The Wide-Open Dictatorship”], journalist Elio Gaspari highlights that the Brazilian military hierarchy “drew upon two classic cases of anti-insurrectional action”: Vietnam and Algeria. Although Vietnam was not considered a “suitable” example because of the frequent executions of civilians, Algeria “was already on the bookshelves of military libraries”.

The man who the French government named military attaché and who was received with open arms in Medici's Brazil had commanded a massacre in Algeria that resulted in the deaths of 7,500 people in two days – 2,000 of whom were executed after being taken prisoner and interrogated in a stadium transformed into a concentration camp. And, as the facts suggest, any similarity with the Chilean National Stadium which saw the same fate in 1973 is more than a mere coincidence.

Relations between the two countries – through Paul Aussaresses – were only just warming up.

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