Peniche prison entrance
Peniche prison entrance

Portugal’s secret police

It is well known that the Estado Novo, the new constitution introduced by Portugal’s dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, made provision for a secret police force.

This police force was first known as the PVDE (Polícia de Vigilância e Defesa do Estado: 1933-45), later as PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado: 1945-69) and lastly as DGS (Direção Geral de Segurança: 1969-74). These changes of name were only window dressing since the personnel and the constitution of this force were continuous.

What is not so well known is that the First Republic also had a secret police force. It was created by President Sidónio Pais in 1918, and its name was changed a number of times before Salazar took charge.

The secret police began to build its net of informers as from 1928, at the same time that it began to use Aljube as its prison in Lisbon. This building is close to the Cathedral in the centre of Lisbon and has a long history of imprisonment, firstly until 1820 for those condemned by the ecclesiastical courts, and for the next hundred years for women convicted of common crimes. The word Aljube comes from the Arabic and means either a well or cistern, and by extension a dungeon.

As from 1928, in Lisbon, the Aljube was the usual first place of imprisonment for political suspects arrested by the secret police. It was a place of interrogation and torture, including beatings, the deprivation of sleep, and “the statue” (the prisoner being forced to stand motionless for hours, often with the arms extended). Prisoners were beaten on the top floor in a heavily curtained cell, but after neighbours complained about the screaming, the practice ceased at this location. There were instances at Aljube of the deaths of prisoners as a result of torture.

Salazar with a picture of Mussolini
Salazar with a picture of Mussolini

The defining characteristic of the Aljube were the 13 ‘gavetas’ or ‘curros’ (literally drawers, lockers or pens). On the second floor, these dark cells had no window, and were long enough only to accommodate the folding bed, which when extended left only 15cm of space at the side. There were two doors for each ‘gaveta’, one of bars and the other of wood, penetrated by a Judas hole.

Each of the 13 imprisoned individuals had to call the guard to escort them to the doorless lavatory. These lightless cells induced a sensation of asphyxia and isolation, and prisoners had no means to occupy their time except in the expectation of the pain of their next interrogation under torture.

The government accepted in 1965 that this prison was badly placed in the centre of the city, and that conditions inside it were dreadful. It was closed that year, and its functions transferred to Caxias. The former prison of the Aljube is now a museum, the Museu do Aljube – Resistência e Liberdade.

The year 1931 was explosive. The new military government faced uprisings in Madeira, the Azores, Guinea and Mozambique as well as in Lisbon. The appearance at the same time of a left-wing Republican government in neighbouring Spain caused the Portuguese regime to become even more repressive.

Peniche prison new block
Peniche prison new block

On June 29, 1932, Dr Salazar was appointed to head the new government. In an interview shortly afterwards, when asked about violence by the police, he said that those who had been maltreated by the police were almost all fearsome bombers, and they told the truth only after being beaten.  Salazar then uttered one of his most famous remarks: “E eu pergunto a mim próprio, continuando a reprimir tais abusos, se a vida de algumas crianças e de algumas pessoas indefesas não vale bem, não justifica largamente, meia dúzia de safanões a tempo nessas criaturas sinistras…?” (And I ask myself, as we continue to suppress these abuses, aren’t the lives of some children and some defenceless people worth, and largely justify, giving those sinister creatures half a dozen timely slaps …?).

When it came into being on August 29, 1933, the main task of PVDE was the suppression of communism in Portugal. Salazar himself publicly announced that communism had “become the great heresy of our age” and was, therefore, the main enemy of his new regime. Secret societies such as Freemasonry were also outlawed. In 1937, anarchists bombed various government buildings, and also made an assassination attempt on Salazar.

Salazar sought advice from Mussolini’s police force, so secret that its name remains uncertain, but was probably OVRA (Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo), which had been founded in 1927. PVDE shared a preventive character with OVRA and the Gestapo, in that they arrested “habitual enemies” before they had committed any crime. This process was a preventive detention.  All three organisations used a network of informers, but while OVRA and Gestapo were so independent that they were practically a state within the state, the Portuguese PVDE and PIDE were always under ministerial control. After the victory of the democratic allies in 1945, Salazar appeared to adopt democratic practices, and promised to hold elections, “as free as in free England”.

Peniche fortress
Peniche fortress

PVDE was renamed as PIDE, but its work was augmented and its new objective was to create fear in the general population. PIDE continued to imprison persons only suspected of conspiring against the state. Whereas such suspects had faced unlimited prison terms before 1945, terms were now limited to three months, but the PIDE could prolong them by 90 days. By 1949, PIDE was again able to hold prisoners for three years or more. As an example, the case of Edmundo Pedro is significant. Arrested for the second time in 1936, he was accused of communism and, without appearing before any court, he was transferred to the concentration camp at Tarrafal in Cape Verde.

Repatriated in 1945, he was brought before the Special Military Tribunal, and set free. The short imprisonment to which he was condemned had been more than served during the nine years and 229 days he had been held in prison.  Even as he was liberated from prison, he was also sentenced to lose his political rights for five years, which disqualified him from any employment in the public sector. As the Cold War intensified, Portugal, with its uncompromising attitude towards communist opponents, was marching in lockstep with the western allies. As the regime consolidated its position, PIDE gained judicial powers relative to preventive imprisonment.

Aljube Museum in Lisbon, formerly a prison
Aljube Museum in Lisbon, formerly a prison

Prison detentions could be and were imposed even on defendants who had been acquitted at trial by PIDE appointed judges. PIDE blotted its copybook by failing to control the outburst of popular support for Humberto Delgado in 1958, and again in 1961, the annus horribilis, when so many challenges were made to the dictatorial regime.  During the Colonial Wars, which began in 1961, PIDE was reinforced in all parts of the empire by more and more informers. The service had four divisions: Investigation; Information; Foreigners; and Frontiers and Special Security, later Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras.

It occurs to me that the current difficulties facing SEF in Portugal may have their roots in this last of PIDE’s sections from 60 years ago.Renamed DGS in 1969, the Portuguese secret police became closer to the CIA and the French secret service, from whom they acquired a more modern telephone tapping system.  In 1972, the permitted term of preventive imprisonment was once more limited to three months, but, at the same time, defence lawyers were not able to attend interrogations and, if anything, torture increased in quantity and sophistication. Of the 26,375 people imprisoned by the secret police between 1926 and 1974, 9,314 (35%) were taken in the four years 1935-1939, and in the 14 years from 1960 to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, a further 7,151 (27%) were imprisoned, the last of them on April 18, 1974, six days before the revolution.

Street name in Moncarapacho
Street name in Moncarapacho

Sadly, 175 died as a direct result of their contact with the secret police and their prisons. The headquarters of the PIDE was located in Rua António Maria Cardoso in the Chiado in Lisbon. It too was a centre of torture, and prisoners were often taken from the Aljube to PIDE headquarters for interrogation and torture.  At one point, the wife of the Brazilian Ambassador complained at the screams emanating from the building in this high-class residential area of Lisbon. She was told that she was probably hearing the squealing of the steel wheels of the trams on their steel rails.

This building was near to the Plenary Tribunal da Boa Hora, where many Portuguese suffered a parody of justice. The Plenary Tribunal under its PIDE judges was a kind of stage on which the state played the drama of Fascism Portuguese Style. One of the lawyers who defended many of the political prisoners before the Tribunal da Boa Hora, sickened by the legal farce he was subjected to, wrote this heartfelt poem: E vós senhores juízes que sem pestanejar obedeceis a leis iníquas deste injusto e triste tempo – que direis no dia do vosso julgamento? (And you judges, who without blinking an eye obey the iniquitous laws of this unjust and sad time – what will you say on the day of your own judgment?)

The Forte de Caxias was constructed in the 1880s as part of the defence system for Lisbon but was soon put to use as a prison. Conditions in the dark, wet and airless casemates were extremely unhealthy. The southern wing was used by PVDE to house male prisoners from 1935, and the northern wing had female prisoners.

When Aljube closed in 1965, prisoners were all transferred to the north wing, while PIDE transferred their interrogations from their HQ to the southern bastion. Away from potential witnesses in the centre of Lisbon, PIDE could torture and violate more freely. The Fortaleza de Peniche was reputed to be the most secure political prison on the mainland of Portugal, and this prison and that at Tarrafal held those prisoners who were serving the longest sentences. It received political prisoners from 1934, and was famous for its “segredos”, the dank, dark cells in which prisoners experienced extra punishment.

After the escape of Álvaro Cunhal and his 10 companions on January 3, 1960, three special blocks of cells were constructed. Conditions for the prisoners improved, but the number of guards increased, and prisoners suffered greater discipline and were held in solitary confinement more often. Peniche was the only prison in which prisoners were not permitted private conversation with their lawyers. Soon after the revolution, this prison and that at Caxias received yet more prisoners, this time the former agents of the political police. Peniche prison has also become a museum dedicated to the memory of the resistance to the dictatorship, the Museu Nacional Resistência e Liberdade.

In the Algarvian town of Moncarapacho, there is a small street named as follows: “Rua João Feliciano Galvão, Vítima da PIDE, Preso em 9-11-936”Apparently, this young man was denounced by the priest after he had disrespected a religious procession. His unexplained disappearance and his continuing absence drove his mother to distraction, and he never returned. Fittingly, this sign is affixed to the wall of the Misericórdia Church.

It may be that this street sign is unique in Portugal (dates in Portuguese often used to appear in this style). The longevity of the dictatorship in Portugal was assured by support from the Church, the Armed Forces, the Censorship. Its major support came from the iron grip of its frightening secret police.  Twentieth century Portugal has been described as a country of unrestricted and arbitrary violence, dominated in full by the political police.

By Peter Booker
|| features@portugalresident.com

Peter Booker co-founded with his wife Lynne the Algarve History Association.
www.algarvehistoryassociation.com