Pedro Troiani and Carlos Propato were trade union leaders at Ford Motors in Argentina four decades ago, when they were detained in the company’s factory and tortured by officers of the last military dictatorship.
They were held prisoner for two years and letters were sent to their families claiming they had been fired for failing to show up for work.
Now they’re suing the company’s former executives for complicity in the 1976 coup d’état, and subsequent 1976- 1983 military dictatorship.
They’re not the only ones pursuing international car companies in court over alleged abuses during the dictatorship – complaints have been made against Mercedes Benz, Renault and Fiat too – but theirs is the most advanced.
Although the company itself is not implicated in the judicial process, the plaintiffs do want to demonstrate there was complicity with the seven-year dictatorship that killed 30,000 people, according to local human rights organisations.
“Without the participation of civilians and more of these companies, this coup would not have succeeded,” Troiani told AFP.
“These people collaborated, they gave them vehicles, food, fuel, they gave them the companies so they could move as they wanted, and that’s how we were removed, one by one.”
PARADED IN HANDCUFFS
“They collaborated. I painted the Falcon cars that they used in the repression,” said Propato, referring to the infamous vehicles the dictatorship used to kidnap opponents, real and perceived.
Both Troiani and Propato insist they had no involvement in political militancy and that they were held and tortured, alongside other work colleagues, because of their union activism.
At Ford’s ‘General Pacheco’ plant in Tigre, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, there were 100 union delegates, of whom 24 were taken captive from their jobs.
In those days, military brigades were stationed at the factory while soldiers ate at the plant’s canteen, many workers have testified.
“They paraded me around the whole factory in handcuffs as if they were saying: look at what could happen to you,” said Troiani. “The colleagues threw screws at them.”
Pointing to a leisure area at the factory, Propato said that was where he and his colleagues were tortured.
He said soldiers covered his head with a plastic bag and he thought he was going to suffocate until Troiani poked a hole in it and “saved my life.”
Smiling sheepishly, Troiani says he can’t remember the incident.
From the plant, they were taken to a police station in Tigre, after which they were transported to a succession of clandestine detention centres throughout their two-year captivity.
“A person imprisoned without knowing why suffers twice as much,” said Troiani, who like Propato was already a father at that time.
According to historian Victoria Basualdo, the bubbling union and worker activism of the 1970s was “a central worry as much for the Armed Forces as it was for company management.”
It explains the “workplace repression” on the day of the 1976 coup, on March 24, when “large numbers of armed forces were mobilised in factories” leading to “the detention and kidnapping of workers and unionists,” Basualdo told AFP.
In Latin America, a region in which military dictatorships were once the norm, Argentina is the country that has taken the greatest strides towards prosecuting those accused of human rights violations.
Hundreds of military personnel of various ranks have been sentenced while several members of the successive military juntas died in prison.
“When democracy began” during the 1983-1989 presidency of Raúl Alfonsín, “and the military juntas were prosecuted, we started asking ourselves: ‘Why? Why did this happen to us? There we saw that justice was possible,’” said Troiani.
Of the 24 Ford unionists detained, only 13 are still alive today.
In December 2017, the first stages of the oral trial against ex-Ford directors Héctor Sibilla and Pedro Müller began, as well as that of military officer Santiago Riveros.
Since then, the judge has heard dozens of testimonies.
Reached by AFP, the defendants’ attorneys declined to comment.
“My colleagues and I fought to arrive here. For me the success is having arrived at trial,” said Propato.
Troiani still wants more, though. “We want them to be held responsible and that our case serves as jurisprudence for other colleagues” whose cases are less advanced, he said.