Deaths of peasants and Indigenous people during the dictatorship were underreported

Research by Gilney Viana shows that the regime killed at least 1,600 rural workers

Translated by: Ana Paula Rocha

Brasil de Fato | Brasília (Federal District) |
From left to rights: Rubens Valente, Gilney Viana, Iara Pontes, Francisco Urbano and Halyme Franco - Foto: Júlio Camargo

In the period between the coup of 1964 in Brazil and the country’s 1988 Constitution, 1,654 peasants were killed or disappeared. The data was presented on Tuesday (2) by historian Gilvey Viana, former political prisoner of the military dictatorship and member of the Peasant Truth Commission (CCV, in Portuguese).

The study was presented during the seminar "Dictatorship Never Again: 60 Years since the 1964 Coup and the Brazilian Countryside", held on the campus of the University of Brasilia (UnB, in Portuguese) in Planaltina, an administrative region of Brazil’s Federal District.

According to Gilney Viana, updating the death toll is important mainly to break down myths and falsehoods that the Brazilian military dictatorship was more lenient, and that resistance was less intense in Brazil compared to Latin American countries.

Gilney is a collaborating researcher at the UnB and guided the research that goes deeper than the data released by the National Truth Commission (CNV, in Portuguese) from 2011 to 2014. For him, CNV’s conclusion at the time did not fulfill its debt to rural workers because, in the final report, "the commission recognized only 41 peasants out of 434 dead and missing. Despite knowing the existence of thousands more killed and forced to disappear. I don't accept that this number does justice to all the victims," he said.

According to Gilvey's analysis and self-criticism, "almost everyone on our left [sic] and our intellectuals who researched the number of deaths during the dictatorship just analyzed the issue of peasants and Indigenous people if they were affiliated to certain political parties or if they played a leading role in what they considered to be a legitimate class struggle based on outdated political theory."

For the researcher, the military dictatorship and the years that followed were marked by intense resistance to it. "A deeper and more radical resistance than is imagined and counted when we talk about the late 70s to the early 90s. People who worked for the right to land and fought against groups of private thugs, against the state police and often against both at the same time," he concludes.

"Guamá Guerrilla"

During the event, researcher Halyme Franco, a CCV member, talked about the "Guamá Guerrilla" case, one of the examples of resistance in the countryside during the 1980s.

This episode took place during the so-called efforts to integrate the Amazon region with the rest of the country, promoted by the dictatorial government. At the time, the business group Joaquim Oliveira S.A. Participações (Josapar), based in Rio Grande do Sul state, settled in the town of Viseu, located in the Cidapar Gleba in the northeast portion of Pará state.

According to Halyme Franco, during the end of the transition from the dictatorship in the 1980s, the company expanded its territories around these towns through land purchases and invasions. Josapar held 60% of the shares in the Amazon Development Superintendency (Sudam, in Portuguese) and Denasa Investments Bank (BDI, in Portuguese), the groups responsible for integration, and determined to focus on local mining.

Halyme explained that the company organized armed groups, such as private guards, and expelled the peasant population from the region. "Initially, the peasants resisted peacefully and organized into unions, workers' leagues and small community meetings to present their demands to Pará state and also for the removal of gunmen from the region. However, Pará state was always silent and became complicit. After the murder of leader Sebastião Mearim in 1981 by company thugs, the peasants opted for armed resistance under the leadership of Quintino Gatilheiro.”

In this period, also according to Halyme Franco, "while the gunmen put their weapons at the service of businessmen and landowners, Gatilheiro’s men joined rural workers, while still presenting their demands to the Pará state government. The then governor Jader Barbalho sent around 300 police officers to fight Gatilheiro’s men in a series of actions involving killings, torture, home invasions and sexual violence against women. In 1985, they managed to assassinate Quintino," she said.

Arrows and rifles

During the seminar, Brazilian journalist Rubens Valente talked about his book Os fuzis e as flechas: História de sangue e resistência indígena na ditadura (“The Rifles and the Arrows: A history of blood and Indigenous resistance during the dictatorship” in a rough translation), released in 2017. It was written based on the experience of working in the states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso and Minas Gerais, as well as research into the archives made public by the CNV in 2014. "The lowest estimate indicates at least 1,278 Indigenous deaths," he said.

According to Rubens Valente, the deaths of Indigenous people occurred in various ways as a result of the policy the dictatorship imposed. "The military government intentionally implemented a genocidal project against traditional peoples" as part of the project to integrate the Amazon into the rest of the country. The exact number of lives lost is even harder to estimate because many [of the victims] were never recognized and hadn’t birth certificates, besides dying without an official death record".

"The contacts with Indigenous people that caused deaths were made for building roads and highways, the construction of hydroelectric dams and the creation of colonization centers. The works were carried out without their consent and were part of a plan to integrate the Amazon. Many of them turned out to be poorly planned, such as the construction of the Transamazon highway," the journalist said.

Valente explained that one of the most shocking cases was the forced transfer by an Air Force high command order to remove the Xavantes from the Marãiwatsédé region in the town of Alto Boa Vista (Mato Grosso state). "The military called in FAB [Brazilian Air Force] planes and removed the Xavante Indigenous people from their land to another area 600 kilometers away. In just one week, 70 Xavantes died due to white people’s diseases and military actions. Many more followed, including children, women and the elderly. There were so many dead that they dug a mass grave and pushed the bodies using tractors," he concluded.

Rubens mentioned the trial of cases of violence against the Krenak Indigenous people, held by the Amnesty Commission on April 2nd. In the outcome of the trial, the use of violence against the Krenak people was acknowledged with an apology from the Brazilian state. However, the rapporteur concludes that "beyond respect for the use and occupation of their lands by the Indigenous themselves, there will only be a minimum of justice when this apology request is not only made by the state, but by the top echelon of the Armed Forces."


The seminar also featured testimonies from Lara Xavier Pereira, a militant from the former National Liberation Action and a member of the Commission of Relatives of the Politically Disappeared, and Francisco Urbano Araújo, a member of the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (Contag, in Portuguese). The event was mediated by UnB professor Regina Coelly Fernandes Saraiva and supported by Borda Luta Collective.

Edited by: Márcia Silva