SÃO PAULO – A small street in São Paulo, which had been named after an infamous torturer of the military dictatorship era (1964-85), was renamed on September 25 after Frei (Friar) Tito de Alencar Lima, a Dominican brother who devoted his life to struggle against the regime.
A bill to rename the street, originally called Doutor Sérgio Fleury – a police chief who allegedly created death squads and led the torture of dozens of the dictatorship’s political opponents in the 1970s – was first introduced in 2013 by then city council member Orlando Silva.
The proposal was part of an initiative led by politicians and civic organizations in order to rename public places that received the names of people involved in human rights abuses. A new group of city council members took on the project and was recently able to pass the bill, which was sanctioned by São Paulo mayor.
“It’s a relevant symbolic victory. We’re currently facing a complex political moment in Brazil, in which some people are trying to rewrite the military dictatorship’s history as if it had been positive for the country and its people,” city council member Antônio Donato told Crux, making a reference to the conservative populist President Jair Bolsonaro, a retired Army captain who has praised the military regime on several occasions.
Dominican Father José Fernandes Alves, who is the religious order’s prior in Brazil and coordinates its Justice and Peace commission, celebrated the change.
“It’s doubly important, because it removes an undue homage to Fleury and at the same time honors Tito,” he told Crux.
Alves explained that Lima, who died in 1974, was a great symbol for him and other young Dominicans who were in their formative years in the 1970s.
“The regime was still strong, and Tito somehow personified the struggle against it. He was a model for us, and his figure incentivized our vocations,” he said.
Lima came from a poor family from Fortaleza, in Ceará State. When he decided to join the Dominicans, he was already the leader of the local branch of the Catholic students’ organization. In 1968, he moved to São Paulo, where he began to study philosophy at the city’s most important university. That same year, he was arrested by the regime for the first time, along with hundreds of students who were attending a clandestine assembly.
“I first met Tito when he was very young. He was part of a group of friars who were ardent supporters of the struggle against the dictatorship. Our organization trusted them,” José Luiz Del Roio, who was a member of the left-wing guerrilla group Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberation Action, or ALN), told Crux.
Lima was arrested for the second time in November of 1969, along with other Dominicans, as part of Fleury’s operation against ALN. Their capture led to the police killing Carlos Marighella, ALN’s leader.
“Tito was terribly tortured. The idea back then was to inflict the maximum possible pain for as long as possible,” Del Roio said.
The violence was even worse in the case of the Dominicans, he added.
“Many of those monsters considered themselves to be Catholic and had a particular hatred for religious opponents of the regime,” Del Roio claimed.
For at least three months, Lima was submitted to torture during interrogation. He was routinely stripped of all his clothes, hit with clubs, and received electric shocks in his head, genitals, and tongue. Fleury and other members of his team are accused by several human rights activists of taking part in the torture.
On one occasion, he was able to get paper and pen in his cell and described his ordeal. The document with his denouncements was nationally and internationally disseminated.
“Captain Albernaz wanted me to say where Friar Ratton was. Given that I didn’t know, I received shocks for 40 minutes,” Lima later recalled.
Due to his physical resistance, his torturers began to morally attack him and the Church, Lima said.
“’Which fathers have lovers?’ ‘Why hasn’t the Church expelled you?’ ‘Who are the other terrorist priests?’ […] He said that ‘the Church is corrupt, practices usury’, and that ‘the Vatican owns the world’s largest companies’,” he said in his testimony.
After some time that day, the torturer told Lima to open his mouth to “receive the holy wafer” and put an electric cable on his tongue. The shock provoked an immediate swelling in Lima’s mouth, and he became unable to talk. The agents kept insulting the Church.
In December of 1970, another guerrilla organization kidnapped the Swiss ambassador to Brazil, Giovanni Bucher, and demanded the release of 70 political prisoners. Lima was among them. Banned from Brazil, he went to Chile, to Italy, and finally to France.
“He arrived in Paris in 1971 with severe psychiatric problems. He was sent to L’Arbresle, near Lyon. I lived there with him for two years. I was there with him during terrible moments,” French-born Dominican Father Xavier Plassat told Crux.
According to Plassat, Lima was “facing an internal battle against Fleury and his own subjectivity.”
“It was like he was ‘possessed’ by his torturer. I was with him in a terrible night when Fleury’s voice was taking control of his mind. Tito was out under the rain, repeating things like: ‘You shouldn’t be at this convent, you don’t belong in the Church,” Plassat recalled.
The Dominicans took Lima to a psychiatrist in Lyon. “I accompanied him several times to the doctor. He said that it wasn’t fair with Tito to give him pills to just make him forget all that. He needed to express what he suffered, although his way of doing that was through those hallucinations,” he said.
Plassat added that Lima was aware that his torturer was tyrannizing his mind and fought with all his strength against him. “He was ill, but such illness was inoculated. The same way he resisted all violence in order to protect his colleagues, he resisted Fleury in his mind,” he said.
Del Roio, who was exiled in Italy, tried to convince Lima to move in with a group of Servite priests to Milan. “They were clergy members who fought the Nazis and Fascists during World War Two and had a deep understanding of his trauma,” he explained.
But it was too late. Lima took his own life in August of 1974, at the age of 28.
His order’s brothers never questioned his action, and never doubted that he deserved a religious funeral.
“We were there with him throughout his torment. Such doubt never appeared to us. We made his funeral, and the Archbishop of Lyon celebrated a Mass in his memory,” Plassat said.
In 1983, Plassat and other Dominicans brought his remains to Brazil.
“The Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, celebrated a Mass in his honor at the cathedral. I was there. The church was full of people. It was a prophetic attitude of Cardinal Arns against the regime,” Alves said.
Lima’s body was then taken to Fortaleza, where another Mass was celebrated. “Nobody ever dared to put in doubt that Tito should have all proper religious celebrations,” Plassat said.
The story of Lima and his colleagues was told a few years later by Dominican Father Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, known in Latin America as Frei Betto, a leading member of the Liberation Theology movement. His book Baptism of Blood became a movie in 2006.
“It’s very important that the renaming of the street is happening now that we have a president who supports torture and praises torturers,” Frei Betto told Crux, alluding to Bolsonaro praising those in the military regime accused of torture.
According to Adriano Diogo, one of the politicians who campaigned to remove the names of torturers from the streets in São Paulo, the residents of the recently named Frei Tito de Alencar Lima Street feared the change when they were consulted years ago.
“We visited them in 2014 in order to discuss the issue. Nobody stood for Fleury, but they feared the idea of giving their approval to the removal of his name,” he told Crux.
Diogo, also a former political prisoner, had never met Lima, but was close to the Dominicans when he was part of the students’ resistance to the military regime.
“We used to distribute the Dominicans’ pamphlets every week in churches in 1970,” he said. In his opinion, honoring Lima’s life has a “fundamental importance” in Brazil right now.
For most Dominicans in the South American country, the recollection of Lima’s life has brought hope of a brighter future.
“I pray for Tito’s intercession, so that measure can have an educational value in other situations that we’re currently facing,” Alves said.