Thursday, February 21, 2019

Brazilian military’s experience comes full circle in Haiti

By Kevin Pina

February 20 , 2008

“Institutional memory is a collective of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group.” 

US Marines, Canadian Special Forces and troops of the French Foreign Legion were authorized by the UN Security Council to 'stabilize' Haiti following the ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004. In June 2004, the United Nations sent the militaries of Brazil, Argentina and Chile to take control of Haiti with the objective of creating conditions for new elections. The Brazilian armed forces were given overall control of the military component of the UN operation.

On February 19, 2008, Brazilian military forces stormed the neighborhood of Village de Dieu on the outskirts of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Their troops entered with weapons drawn and began a massive sweep with UN police in tow that ended with the arrest of dozens of young men in the area. Residents claim this military incursion was executed without a single warrant being presented from Haiti’s courts or just cause. Residents of poor communities throughout Haiti say that terrifying raids led by Brazilian forces have been common occurrences since they arrived in 2004. For the families of those arrested and left traumatized by these incursions, it raises serious questions about the role Brazilian forces have played in Haiti.

For an answer we have to look at the reporting of Pedro Dantas of the Brazilian daily Estadão de Hoje. Dantes wrote, "Army sources confirmed that techniques employed in the occupation of the Morro da Providéncia favela [slum] are the ones Brazilian soldiers use in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti." 1 Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of Montevideo's weekly Brecha, would later conclude, “This admission by Brazilian armed forces largely explains the interest of Lula da Silva's government in keeping that country's troops on the Caribbean island: to test, in the poor neighborhoods of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, containment strategies designed for application in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other large cities.” 2Zibechi’s article does not fully explain, however, that the process began with the Brazilian military applying brutal tactics from their own historical experiences in the slums of Haiti upon their arrival in 2004.

The learning curve of the Brazilian military for controlling poor urban populations was only accelerated by their experiences in Haiti. The military and police apparatus in Brazil already had a long history of using violence and terror towards solving the complex social challenges of the slums, known as favelas, in their own country. According to Brazilian anthropologist Alba Zaluar in April 2004, "Their approach is one of relentless confrontation with the poor communities. This military posture dates back to Brazil's dictatorship and will never win the loyalty of the favela against its own kind." 3 To fully understand the importance of this statement it is necessary to briefly touch upon the historical role of Brazil‘s military and police forces.

The 1964 military coup in Brazil, against the government of João Goulart, ushered in an unprecedented period of slaughter and torture committed by the Brazilian military and police. Not unlike the coup that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti in 2004, it enjoyed the backing of the U.S. government. According to declassified documents, President Lyndon Johnson was being briefed by phone at his Texas ranch, as the Brazilian military mobilized against Goulart. Johnson stated, "I'd put everybody that had any imagination or ingenuity...[CIA Director John] McCone...[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara" on making sure the coup went forward.” 4

Following the coup, Brazil’s military and police helped to export torture techniques used against political dissidents. In their groundbreaking book, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman write, “From Brazil, and with continuing U.S. assistance, torture spread throughout much of Latin America in the 1960's and early 1970's, with Brazil serving as a torture-aid subcontractor.” 5
It is for this reason the Brazilian military shares the dubious distinction of being one of the western hemisphere’s greatest human rights violators in modern history. Perhaps it is no accident they share this distinction with their counterparts appointed by the United Nations to oversee military operations in Haiti, namely the militaries of Argentina and Chile.

It is exactly this history of repression and ‘military posture’ Alba Zaluar was referring to when she addressed military and police tactics for controlling the poor in the favelas of contemporary Brazil. It is this same approach of ‘relentless confrontation with the poor communities’ Zaluar described that have also come to define Brazilian military tactics in Haiti.

In early December 2005, Amnesty International (AI) would accuse Brazilian security forces of human rights violations in the favelas. The report called Brazil: 'They come in Shooting': Policing socially excluded communities pointed to the following as an example, "The violence was highlighted by an incident in March [2005], in which 29 people were shot dead by a "death squad" -- believed to consist of members of Rio de Janeiro's military police force -- in the Baixada Fluminense District of the city; it was the worst massacre in the city's history, but not a new or isolated phenomenon." 6

The AI report went further and described police tactics that closely resembled the practices of the Haitian National Police and the Brazilian troops sent to support them following Aristide’s ouster. The report continued, “Yet, when the police do intervene, it is often by mounting "invasions" – violent mass raids using no warrants or, on rare occasions, collective warrants that label the entire community as criminal. Human rights violations and corruption on the part of the police are rife in the favelas. The majority of the victims of police violence are poor, black or mixed race youths and the experience of many favela residents is that the police are corrupt, brutal and to be feared.” Although the residents of poor communities like Bel Air, Cite Soleil and Village de Dieu are exclusively black, what remains is an apt description of what transpired in Haiti between 2004-2006. The Haitian police would mount brutal raids inside the poor communities still demonstrating for Aristide while the Brazilian military would encircle them with a dragnet resulting in arbitrary searches and mass extra-judicial detentions. 7

On July 6, 2005, less than two months after Zaluar gave her interview to the Guardian and four months after the massacre in Baixada Fluminense, the Brazilian military would authorize and lead a deadly military assault against the Haitian slum of Cite Soleil. Not so coincidentally, the neighborhood served as launching site for massive demonstrations demanding the return of ousted president Aristide and yet another was being planned for his upcoming birthday celebration nine days later on July 15.

According to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, the UN attack on the crumbling civilian neighborhood was intense, prolonged, and carried out with heavy artillery and weaponry that Brazilian military officials knew would cause extensive collateral damage and the death of innocent victims. Residents and human rights groups accused the Brazilians of leading a massacre by UN forces that resulted in the deaths of at least 26 unarmed people with scores more wounded. 8According to a UN ‘After Action’ report, “[The] firefight lasted over seven hours during which time [UN] forces expended over 22,000 rounds of ammunition... [An official] with MINUSTAH acknowledged that, given the flimsy construction of homes in Cite Soleil and the large quantity of ammunition expended, it is likely that rounds penetrated many buildings, striking unintended targets." 9

The ‘unintended’ targets included an unarmed woman and her two young boys shot at point blank range by UN forces. Fredi Romelus gave video testimony describing how UN forces threw a smoke bomb into his house forcing him to flee. 10 Thinking his wife and children were following him out, he turned back to see soldiers with blue helmets fire into the doorway of his house with automatic weapons. After the soldiers left he returned to find his wife Sonia lying dead in a pool of blood clutching the corpse of their one year-old son Nelson Romelus. Their four year-old son Stanley lie nearby having been felled by a single high-powered gunshot wound to the head. 11

Five months after the Brazilian led assault on Cite Soleil, an investigation by the BBC would conclude, “Hundreds, possibly thousands of people are shot by police every year in Brazil.” 12 In November 2006 the BBC would also give a description of a favela known as Heliopolis in Sao Paulo that uncannily mirrored press descriptions of Cite Soleil. The BBC would report, “Controlled by drug-traffickers and scarred by gun crime, it remains a no-go area for most of this city's residents.” 13 Earlier that same year a reporter for The Dallas Morning News would describe Cite Soleil as “a no-go zone even for police, and young men armed with automatic rifles zip around its avenues and back streets in stolen SUVs.” 14

Despite the comparison these two press reports may invite, the situation in these two countries couldn’t have been more different. The greatest similarity between the favelas in Brazil and what has transpired in the slums of Haiti’s capital since February 2004 has been the brutal tactics and shoot first policies employed by Brazilian security forces. Perhaps another similarity is that like Brazilian authorities, the UN did not hesitate in allowing the Brazilian military to green light a military solution by playing the age-old game of demonizing entire communities as criminal or supporters of criminal elements. 15 While the press widely covered complaints made by the UN and Haiti's Chamber of Commerce of bandits, gangsters and drug dealers controlling Cite Soleil, next to nothing was mentioned of the frequent demonstrations mounted for Aristide’s return. Even less was mentioned of the police opening fire on thousands of unarmed demonstrators. What the UN ultimately portrayed as criminal activities in the Haitian slums was in reality widespread political resistance that had formed to the ousting of Aristide.

A second military assault led by the Brazilians would be launched against Cite Soleil on December 22, 2006. An initial tally of the carnage following the raid was taken by the rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux. In it they listed 29 people killed and 33 wounded by UN forces that day. 16 The victims included 24 year-old Lelene Mertina who was six months pregnant when a UN bullet ripped through her abdomen instantly killing her unborn fetus. There was also the testimony of a 16 year-old boy named Jonel Bonhomme who was shot in the back. As he lay dying he described in detail how the UN opened fire on unarmed civilians on his block. All told, video and photographic documentation as well as eyewitness testimony painted a picture all too similar to the events of July 6, 2005. 17

The UN now stands accused by residents of Cite Soleil of having committed two massacres in their community under the leadership of Brazilian military forces in Haiti. To those familiar with the history of the Brazilian military this may come as no surprise. What is surprising is the degree to which critical thinkers have been influenced by a Brazilian military now being recast as UN ‘peacekeepers’ in Haiti. It may serve as good public relations but provides no comfort for residents of poor communities in Haiti who continue to be terrorized by military raids. For them there is little doubt the Brazilian military relies upon the same impulses that earned it a reputation for brutality and human rights abuses in its own country. And while there can be no doubt that the experiences of the Brazilian military in Haitian slums have informed their operations in the favelas, their penchant for relying upon brute strength and superior firepower, to solve social problems, was formed long before they came to Haiti.

1. Pedro Dantas, (Estadão de Hoje -São Paulo) "Exército admite uso de tática do Haiti em favela do Rio,", 15 Dec. 2007.
2. Raúl Zibechi, (Programa de las Américas) “La militarización de las periferias urbanas”, 21 de enero de 2008.
Dantes original quote cited by Zibechi was:
3. Gareth Chetwynd, The Guardian, “Deadly setback for a model favela”, Saturday April 17 2004.
March 31 2004.
5. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, “The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism”, South End Press 1979. See page pg. 48.
6. Amnesty International, "They come in shooting": Policing socially excluded communities”, AI Index: AMR 19/025/2005 2 December 2005
Note: Recent versions of this report have been reduced to a Facts and Figures page. The full report can still be found at:
7. Haiti Information Project, “Haiti’s police ratchet up violence, dismiss human rights concerns”, June 6, 2005.
8. Seth Donnelly interviewed by Amy Goodman, “Eyewitnesses Describe Massacre by UN Troops in Haiti”, July 12, 2005.
9. Keith Yearman, Assistant Professor of Geography, College of DuPage,
“The Cite Soleil Massacre Declassification Project”.
10. Shirley Pate, (HCV Analysis), “Video Evidence Released of UN Massacre in Haiti”, January 25, 2008
11. Haiti Information Project, “Evidence mounts of a UN massacre in Haiti”, July 12, 2005.
12. Angus Stickler, BBC News, “Brazilian police 'execute thousands'”, November 23, 2005.
13. Steve Kingstone, BBC News, “Brazil police in 'shoot-to-kill' claims”, November 17, 2006.
14. Reed Lindsay, The Dallas Morning News, “Shattered Haiti awaits election”, February 5, 2006.
15. Haiti Information Project, “UN accommodates human rights abuses by police in Haiti”, May 8, 2005.
16. Haiti Information Project, “The UNspoken truth about gangs in Haiti”, February 15, 2007.
17. Haiti Information Project, “UN in Haiti accused of second massacre”, January 21, 2007.
©2008 Haiti Information Project - All Rights Reserved 
Kevin Pina is the founding editor of the Haiti Information Project (HIP)
The Haiti Information Project (HIP) is a non-profit alternative news service providing coverage and analysis of breaking developments in Haiti. Winner of the CENSORED 2008 REAL NEWS AWARD for Outstanding Investigative Journalism