The 24 victims, several of whom were union delegates, were all working at Ford’s General Pacheco plant in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires, when they were arrested between March and August of 1976. Before being transferred to various police stations and prisons, they were held for 12 hours in the recreational area of the plant, where they were beaten up and tortured, according to witnesses.
The three main defendants are former Ford production manager Pedro Müller, former plant security chief Héctor Sibilla and former Fourth Army Corps commander Santiago Omar Riveros. Two other executives (then-Ford company president Nicolás Courard and labour relations manager Guillermo Galarraga) have since died in the intervening four decades.
A handful of surviving workers, wearing T-shirts with the Ford logo splashed with red paint, were in the courthouse while posters calling for justice were flourished outside.
The trial is being held at the San Martín federal courthouse, which is in the vicinity of the General Pacheco plant, and is expected to continue for months.
“Soldiers in uniform seized me at my job while I was painting a car. They tortured me for 12 hours, from 11am to 11pm, including a beating with sticks, rolling me down a staircase and the electric cattle prod,” Carlos Propato, 69, a union delegate who had been working at the plant since 1970, told the AFP news agency, recalling: “From there we were transferred to a police station where we were held for 40 days in filthy conditions, hungry and tortured almost every day. I lost an eye and suffered a vertebral fracture.” In total he spent two years in jail.
“The Ford plant in General Pacheco was a centre for arrest and torture. From Ford we never received anything, not a word, not a letter, nothing,” he declared.
The military defendants are accused of abduction and the illegal use of force. Muller, 86, and Sibilla, 91, are accused of complicity facilitating these crimes.
“We 24 were all imprisoned on the orders of the company. More than 40 years later it is important to see justice done,” says Propato.
While they were being held, their families received telegrams from Ford ordering them to show up to work and when these were not heeded, they were sent pink slips firing them.
The case accuses the Ford executives of playing a key role in identifying workers who were active in the trade union, as well as placing a torture-room within the plant at the disposal of the task force and providing vehicles to transfer the victims to prison.
“What was my crime? Simply claiming worker rights”, affirms Propato.
A court source considers that “if the 24 workers were not eliminated, that was because they were not thought to represent a danger according to military criteria. They were just being punished for their union activities.”
Since 2005, when the impunity legislation was repealed, hundreds of torturers and repressors have been tried, and their head, former junta chief Jorge Videla, died in prison in 2013.