FJA Shortlist 2021

Category: Outstanding Investigative Reporting

Author: Mauri König

The Forgotten Children of Itaipu

The original publication is available via the following link: 

The Intercept Brasil - January 6, 2021

By Mauri KÖNIG

English translation

Controlled prostitution by the dictatorship to build the greatest hydroelectric of the world left a multitude of children fatherless.

The agriculturists João Batista e Maria Florinda dos Santos arrived in Foz do Iguaçu City in 1969, carrying a child in their arms and another by the hand, coming from a further South region of Brazil. They bought a piece of land in a bucolic district of Três Lagoas, to plant vegetables and raise chicken. Six years after that, the family saw themselves surrounded by brothels in a place that would be the greatest core of prostitution of the triple frontier formed by Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.

The new prostitution zone was established by the local and national government 400 meters from a bus stop of the South shoulder of the road BR-277, the only ground access to Foz do Iguacu. It was a side effect of the mega construction of Itaipu hydroelectric power plant, the largest of the world by that time, which was used by the Military Dictatorship as a symbol of the Brazilian “economic miracle”.

By the resolution of the military who governed the country, the former zone of prostitution houses was removed from the original place to open room for a set of houses built to the power plant workforce. So, the brothels were relocated to a rural neighborhood occupied by corn producers and smallholder livestock raisers.

Itaipu was built through a cooperation settlement between Paraguay and Brazil´s dictatorships. The power plant was raised on the border of the two countries, over Paraná River, split by two on a binational entity. During the entire period of the construction, the power plant was under control of the two dictatorships.

In Brazil, the hydroelectric was controlled by the generals who started a coup in 1964 and remained in power of the country until 1985, implementing a policy of press censorship, violence, and murders. When they left, the military left a residue of 434 deaths, people who were opposite to the dictatorial regime.

Itaipu was the show room of the dictators. There were 32.000 workers at the highest point of the construction – 12.000 of them were single, reason why a zone of prostitution was needed to attend the military interests. The construction of Itaipu made the population of Foz do Iguacu increase from 35.000 inhabitants in 1935, to 140.000 in 1984, period of the beginning and end of the power plant construction. Nowadays the city has a population of 260.000.

That was the context in which the new prostitution zone was relocated, having the goal of providing service to the plant workers. The brothels were placed right next to the house of João and Maria. João had 8 children from a previous marriage and other 9 more with Maria.

According to Julia, their daughter, her father had 4 more children with working girls of the red-light district. Joao did not recognized any of them. “That’s what we know, it could have been more children”, admits Julia, who was 5 years old when the brothels took place where the family lived.

The family then started to face a strange paradox. João had children with the working girls, while Maria looked after the children of those women, who had no means to take care of them while working in the brothels. João was not the only one to deny the children born from relations with the prostitutes of the place.

An unprecedented survey made by Intercept reveals that in the 10 years of construction of Itaipu plant, there was a significant increase of registered children without the name of the father. Only in that decade, the registry office of the city documented the birth of 4.280 newborns and 134 stillborn children without a defined paternity, 5 times more than the previous decade to the beginning of the construction of Itaipu.

The impacts of the local demography remained even after the conclusion of the power plant, because many children without a father kept being born. That was due to a great number of workers, also known as dam men, who remained in the city, including the thousands of immigrants who did not have the chance to work at the construction.

As a result of the population explosion, between 1985 and 1994, the city registry office showed over 7.605 newborns and 96 stillborn children without the paternity recognized at the official document. Altogether, 12.115 children were born without a father in the period of 20 years after the beginning of the construction of Itaipu, according to the survey of the report.

Intercept went searching for the “children of Itaipu”, a multitude of children born from the sneaky encounters from the dam men and the prostitutes of Foz do Iguaçu. Thousands of women worked in the nightclubs over the control do the military dictatorship. And, without knowledge, they helped to finance weapons and ammunitions to the armed force of the State. Those children are one of a few memories left of the time the dictatorship profit from prostitution.

Three days of fun at the “prostitution paradise”

Três Lagoas district gathered the largest number of brothels of the border at the highest point of the construction of Itaipu. “There were around 25 big houses, besides the bars. Altogether, there were 30 or 35 houses”, said Dalva Alves Pereira, 65, whose nickname was Regina the time she was a brothel manager. The number of women varied according to the size of the house.

“We happened to have 700 women at the same time, because there were the ones who lived there and the ones who came from other places and stayed there for a while. They stayed for one week, one month, two months. There were over 700, 800 counting everyone”, Dalva recalls. During the construction of the hydroelectric at least 10.000 women worked at the brothels of Três Lagoas.

Few houses were made of brick and had swimming pools, a luxury attraction to seduce the clients. Most of the houses were made of wood and the living room was used as a dance floor, connecting to a corridor that led to the rooms where the sexual intercourses took place. That was the most bustling place in the border, day and night, and that was the reason it was called, by the local press a “Prostitution Paradise”. The clients were the hydroelectric workers.

Itaipu prioritized hiring single men because the collective dorms were centered inside the construction site. “There were 12.000 single workers under the responsibility of Unicon, company responsible for the management and distribution of the dam men in the lodges”, the geographer Patricia Sutuyo points out. She carried out a master’s research in University Federal of Santa Catarina (UFSC) in which she approached the urban segregation at the border during the construction of the hydroelectric.

During the days off, the workers used the brothels to relieve the tensions of a work controlled with a military strictness in the construction site. “There was an interest by the company for the employees to release their distresses and cravings at the zone of prostitution”, says the historian Luiz Eduardo Catta. The conclusion is in his research about the daily life of the borderline during the construction of the hydroelectric, made at the same University, UFSC, one of the most prestigious institutions in Brazil.

The paydays at the construction sites brought on frantic preparation at the brothels, foreseeing the arrival of busses, cars, and trucks with the dam men. Itaipu paid their wages in cash in an envelope with banknotes. Part of that ended up in the brothels.

“The guys got out of those trucks with money in their hands. Then, they drank a little and sometimes a thief appeared taking the money. It was crazy”, recalls Genésio Aparecido da Silva, a former police officer. He arrested many dam men in trouble at the prostitution zone. “It was really turbulent in the days of payments”, he said.

The former dam man João Carlos Chaves says that he used to save part of his salary to spend in the brothels. “In the middle of the month, I used to go there and didn’t care about anything. The party was great”, remembers João. “I used to spend the night there, and sometimes didn’t even return on Sunday”, he says laughing. “Sometimes I only returned on Monday”, he said.

Under the Military Control

Itaipu has always refused to take any responsibility over the prostitution zone of the border, although it attended the binational entity and the military’s interests. And it has remained the same way for 45 years. “We do not have any records on Itaipu’s actions for the remotion and relocation of prostitution houses in Foz do Iguaçu”, the company informed Intercept by email. But history says it differently.

“Clearly, company and city officials understood the necessity for a zone of tolerance that was sufficiently removed from the city center, easily accessible from the highway, and ample enough to contain the number of houses required to service the thousands of male dam workers that would soon descend upon the borderlands”, said John Howard White. He is the author of a PHD thesis of New Mexico University (USA) about work and gender in the borders of Brazil and Paraguay.

“Itaipu security guards controlled the brothels in order to avoid quarrels and to assure that the workers wouldn’t get drunk enough to the point of causing self-injuries or work accidents”, stresses the geographer, Patricia Sutuyo.

The prostitution zone was also monitored by the military dictatorship, through State Institutions. All the working girls were registered in Civil Police of Paraná, the state of Foz do Iguaçu city. From the beginning to the end of the construction of the hydroelectric, the number of registered women by the police force was up to 10.000.

The State maintained the control over those women by issuing a “ballerina card”, with picture and personal data at the front and stamps of medical follow ups at the back. It was a responsibility of the Civil Police of Paraná, by an especial fund of police apparatus named Funrespol (Police Re-equipment Fund), with the function of checking medical records of those women and charge the fees from the brothels.

The prostitution per se is not illegal in Brazil, but the penal code of 1940 considers a crime “to take advantage of a third part prostitution, taking part directly in one’s profit or supporting oneself, partially or at all, by the one who practices it”. The penalty is 1 to 4 years of reclusion, and a fine. In other words, the military government itself acted against the law, taking advantage of the prostitution.

“To work, the women had to bring a document and we manufactured the ballerina’s card, with the original name and the fantasy name”, confirmed to Intercept the retired police officer Genésio Aparecido da Silva, who was the chief of Funrespol between 1978 and 1986. “Every month we did the inspection. If one of them had not made the medical follow up, she would be notified. The requirement had to be followed”, he affirms.

Every brothel paid a monthly fee to Funrespol, money which after would be reverted to the purchase of equipment for the police force. Even considered marginal to the law, the work of the prostitutes was used to buy weapons, ammunition, and vehicles, which attended the state organs of the repression of military dictatorship. The police of the federal district and of the 26 states of the country were subordinated to the military government.

The police of Paraná State set up a schedule to charge the fees from the brothel owners. “The owners had to pay a fee to keep their business opened, and we always told them the women had to go first to Funrespol to make their ballerina’s card”, Genésio recalls. At the beginning of each month, the police officers did the rounds over the city to charge the fees. “We did an inspection and the owners had to show the documents, or the establishment would be shut down”, he said.

“The police officers used to inspect every brothel, woman by woman”, describes Dalva Alves Pereira, a former brothel manager who currently lives with her husband in a single room house at the same district. “We went to the gynecologist to check for venereal diseases. At sometimes they came to take the blood sample here and we paid them”, she said. “To pay the license, we had to take the test to the police station. Every month we had to take the women’s test at the police station”, tells Dalva.

“The military seized power by the force in 1964 not only aiming to eliminate the left-wing parties, but to implement a project of a “Great Brazil”, supported by colossal works and in a society with conservative, Christians, and moral principles”, points out the anthropologist José Miguel Nieto Olivar. In his book “Devir Puta”, product of his doctorate degree, he observes that the State was complacent to the imprisonment, torture, and death of prostitutes.

But, in the hydroelectric of Itaipu, the military decided to use the prostitution on their benefit, showing the hypocrisy through the speech and the practice of the dictatorship. The police of Foz do Iguacu sent monthly reports of fee collection to the Direction Command of the Civil Police in Curitiba, capital city of Paraná state, 700 km far from Foz do Iguaçu. There are no records of the amount of money the prostitution controlled by the State in Três Lagoas district profit on behalf of the military dictatorship.

Abortion, abandonment, and fatherless children

The family of Julia dos Santos was harshly impacted by the settlement of the prostitution houses in Três Lagoas district, where she was born. Julia was 5 years old and saw everything happening by her room window. “At that time there weren’t many preservatives, so there was a lot of children”, she says.

Although the State was very strict to register the working girls and collect the fees, it was neglected to assure contraceptive methods to them. There is no possible accurate way to know the exact number of the children born from the relationship of the dam men with the prostitutes. But, in fact, there are 12.115 children registered on unknown father, in just two decades of direct influence of Itaipu in Foz do Iguaçu demography.

But not all the children were born. The unwanted pregnancy demanded a difficult choice. “We never knew if it was a miscarriage or an intended abortion, but there were a lot of abortions”, Julia said. The women who decided to carry on the pregnancy gave birth in Iguacu maternity or São Vicente de Paula Hospital. “Many women gave birth at the brothel”, she affirms with the certainty of someone who grew up watching it through her window.

The babies born at the brothels had different fate. “Some mothers paid someone to take care of their child, others gave the child to whoever wanted him and then left the brothel”, reveals the former brothel manager Dalva Pereira.

There were so many babies that the families of the neighborhood had a task force to take care of the newborns. “My mother took care of more than 30 children of the prostitutes”, Julia recalls. “They couldn´t take care of the babies because they needed to work at night, so I felt obliged to look after them”, Maria Florinda dos Santos confirms. Nowadays she is 84 years old.

Maria was the neighborhood’s healer and started to play the part of a big mother when she started to accept the children of the working girls. “It was not just my mom who did that, Alice*, the owner of one brothel has also raised a lot of children. My neighbor Tereza also raised those children”, Julia recalls.

Alice was the owner of the brothel named Carinho da Noite (Night’s Affection), one of the most visited tolerance houses of the borderline, which ended the activities in 2018. The owner of the brothels used to dismiss the women who got pregnant or requested them to abort. Alice acted differently. She maintained the pregnant women during all the pregnancy working as a cleaner or a cook and then took the responsibility of raising the newborn.

Alice bought a house nearby, in Parque Imperatriz district, to shelter those children and selected one of her workers to take care of them. Altogether, Alice supported 44 children in that house and registered 8 of them on her name in the city registry office.

In two occasions Alice refused to receive the Intercept team at the door of her house, where it was her brothel until 2018. Neusa*, the “second mother”, Alice’s employee who changed diapers and took care of the children, explained the reasons for Alice’s refusal to talk: prejudice and persecution. Also afraid, Neusa was reluctant to talk about that and used half words to tell the sad story.

It was not easy to adapt to the neighborhood having at the same time so many children of the prostitutes in one house. The bias against their origins was so strong to the point of becoming a target of the press. In the middle of the 90’s, a judge showed up at the door of the house followed by a cameraman and a reporter of a sensationalist tv show.

Neighbors have reported complaints of mistreat. But, after checking and listen to Neusa, the judge was all compliments. The 44 children grew up with the stigma of their parentage and of the way they were conceived. On many occasions, Neusa needed to go to school to help her children, victims of prejudice.

“Just because they are children of prostitutes, they have no right to live?”, she asks. Therefore, Alice has her reasons to choose to be silent. She avoids opening old scars, now that her children grew up and many of them have their own families. Alice prefers to preserve them, because among her children there are public servers, chefs, businessmen, waiters, teachers. “They all followed a good path, none of them became a criminal”, Neusa says proudly.

Many men knew the pregnancy of the girl they had intercourse with. “Some of them even helped those women, others didn’t want to help neither meet the child. How many children do not know the father and can be talking to him? How many mothers are next to their children and do not know that because she gave the child to someone else?”, Neusa points out.

“Many children were born, many died, many were aborted. That was the law of the time. Because, by the eyes of the brothel, the woman had to be pretty and the pregnancy did not make her pretty”, concludes Neusa.

* The original names were modified to preserve the privacy and the safety of the characters.

A promise of future

The large flow of clients and money opened place to the sexual exploration of minors in Três Lagoas. “As the place started to be famous for easy money making, a lot of teenagers of 15, 16 years old started to show up. When the police came to inspect, the girls ran to nearby houses”, Julia Santos recalls.

The corruption fed the illegal business. “Most of them lied about their age. The brothels were really crowded, there was no time to check for minors. If the police took any of the teenager, it was her problem”, dodged the former brothel manager Dalva Pereira. “Sometimes there were problems, we had to pay the police not to be arrested”, she says.

According to the former police officer Genésio da Silva, the surveillance made in the houses was not just to collect the maintenance fees, but also to avoid the presence of minors in the brothels. “But many of the girls had a false document, attesting that they were 18 years old. That happened a lot”, he recognizes.

On the Paraguayan side of the border, there were also teenagers in María Magdalena District, which had 400 women in 37 brothels. “The owners of the brothels used to look for girls in the countryside and convinced their parents about the wonderful future they would have”, says the journalist Alcebiades Delvalle. In 1979 he investigated the death of a teenager and unveiled a corruption scheme involving local authorities, fact that sped up the end of the zone of prostitution.

The victim was Adriana da Silva, Brazilian, 16 years old. Her death was not notified to the police and the body was buried at the private cemetery of a farmer. The police investigation was filed, but Delvalle found out that the wife of the responsible judge of the case used to go to the brothels to sell cosmetics. “Nobody else could sell it, only her. And the prices were abusive”, says Delvalle.

As well as in Brazil, women had to pay a fee to the police in Paraguay, to be registered, and another monthly fee to work. The brothels paid monthly to have the right to work, and an additional fee to the chief of police in order to assure “special protection”, which included the rescue of runaway women. “Nobody could leave”, recalls Delvalle.

The local authorities made a lot of money with the sexual trading of Hernandarias city. The head of the City Health Center also charged the women every other week, with the allegation of the health attendance. “Everybody won, but not the girls’, said the journalist. It was never clarified in which hands the money ended up to.

Delvalle’s series of reports, published on the newspaper ABC Color, marked the beginning of the decline of the prostitution zone of Hernandarias city. The houses started to be vacant bit by bit and the women spread out to other brothels in the borderline. Some of them ended up in the prostitution zone in Três Lagoas, in Foz do Iguaçu.

The end of the brothels and the neglect towards the women

The decline of the prostitution zone in Três Lagoas started with the end of the construction of Itaipu Binacional, with the spreading of AIDS and the creation of a prison complex in the area. “Everything started to end”, says Neusa, who worked in the brothel Carinho da Noite. Some of those brothels are currently houses, repair shops, Evangelic Temples and even a Rectory of the Catholic Church.

In the construction site of Itaipu women were the exception. The symbolic representation of the segregation is expressed in a 25 mt length and 2 height panel exposed in the entrance of the power plant, a tribute to the dam men workers who raised the “century workpiece”. Ostracism was the single retribution to the working girls who served Itaipu workforce. The only memory of those women are the children born in the brothels, yet the State does not acknowledge them.

But, without those women, the great work of the military dictatorship perhaps would not have been finished. “Prostitution was a vital part in the construction of the hydroelectric”, Delvalle points out. “Without such outlets for male sexuality, the project could be delayed due to a lack of sex: in a circular logic, men could not function properly without regular sexual intercourse, and the hydroelectric dam project could not be constructed without the male dam workers. In short, there could be no hydroelectric dam without the sex workers”, concludes the Historian John Howard White.

Delvalle describes the hypocrisy and the neglect of the high command of Itaipu towards those women. Itaipu Binacional planned and built houses to their workers, with education, health, recreation, and trainings. On the other hand, the employees used the service of those women. “Itaipu Binacional did not have a direct role, but rather the impetus emerged from its workers and as an indirect consequence of its activities”, complements White.

For Delvalle, Itaipu and its outsources companies should have recognized the prostitutes as a legitimate category of workers, with the same benefit given to the workers of the dam. He suggests that the medical follow up of those women should have been performed in clinics and hospitals managed by Itaipu, to avoid the exploration of the health authorities.

Forty years later, Delvalle sadly recalls the prediction he once made during the construction: “When the dam is finally opened, nobody would find any plate to celebrate or honor the young women of Hernandarias”. The prostitution was seen as a necessity, but only tolerated when kept hidden.

This is the link to the video that is part of the report (it is necessary to enable the English subtitles):

Original article in Portuguese