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ARGENTINA | 15-12-2018 09:39

The human stories at the heart of a decades-long search for justice

On Tuesday, as a landmark trial drew to a close, a court sentenced two former Ford Motor Company executives to prison for their role in aiding the kidnapping and torture of 24 workers during the last military dictatorship.

In landmark convictions, marking the first time representatives of a multinational company have been handed sentences for participating in crimes against humanity, two former executives of Ford Motor Co. Argentina were found guilty this week of aiding the abduction and torture of 24 workers during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Ex-manufacturing director, 87-year-old Pedro Müller, and ex-security manager, Héctor Francisco Sibilla, aged 92, were sentenced to 10 and 12 years in jail respectively for aiding the kidnapping and torture of employees at Ford’s factory plant. Santiago Omar Riveros, a former Army chief, was handed 15 years.

As the verdicts were read out in court, victims and their family members burst into applause and cheers, with many tearing up as their emotions overcame them. While the sentences are historic, marking the end of a lengthy search for justice, at the heart of the case are a series of human stories.

“Pursuing justice has taken up half of our lives,” said Elisa Charlín, the wife of ex-Ford worker Pedro Troiani, who was one of those lucky enough to survive.

The couple, who have been married for 54 years, have three children, seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

On Thursday, as Charlín was preparing a celebratory meal to celebrate with her family, she took a break to talk to the Times, remembering how she first found out that her husband had been abducted, how she managed to discover his whereabouts, visit him in jail and how she fought for his freedom.

She wasn’t alone in that quest. A group of wives and partners took to the streets when the dictatorship death squads seized their loved ones. Today, some 42 years after those abductions, what happened at Ford’s factory in General Pacheco, in the northern area of Greater Buenos Aires, can be retold, through a series of female voices.

PEDRO AND ELISA

On March 24, 1976, the same day of the last military coup, Pedro Troiani learnt that a group of workers from the factory’s canteen had been kidnapped. Three weeks later, on April 13, military officers arrived at the area of the plant where he worked. They were there abduct him.

Along with four colleagues – including Ismael Portillo – Troiani was taken to an impromptu detention centre within the grounds of the plant, where he was beaten and blindfolded.

“Don’t be sad, but Pedro was taken,” a relative who worked at the factory told Elisa, she recalls.

She didn’t know where he was until another colleague who had been abducted previously, Francisco Perrota, managed to smuggle out a small piece of paper, saying that Pedro was now with him at a police station in Tigre, Buenos Aires province.

Elisa managed to talk to lieutenant colonel, who worked under the supervision of Santiago Omar Riveros – the Army general and one of the defendants in this week’s trial – who had a list with the names of those arrested in Ford.

“Pedro Troiani, here he is,” Molinari told her, after examining the paper before him.

“I had three children. And I told them that their father was a good man, that nothing bad was going to happen to him, but that he had been arrested because bad guys oversaw the government. They have always known the truth,” Elisa remembers.

Troiani was transferred from Tigre to the Villa Devoto prison, and later to Unit N° 9 in La Plata, from where he would eventually be released, in April, 1977.

Elisa remembers begging Riveros and Molinari for Pedro’s release. “I need my husband to be released,” she implored. Another tragedy had hit the family. A doctor had told Elisa that her son was dying. The duo’s eldest son, Marcelo, was going to have to undergo two operations, in order to remove a tumour from his liver.

Her husband was in jail and Elisa didn’t know what was going on, despite visiting him every week. “All the women knew what was happening to me, but I didn’t want Pedro to learn,” she remembers.

Pedro was released and Marcelo was dismissed from hospital on April 28, 1977. For Troiani, it was obviously impossible to go back to the plant where he had worked since 1963, and it was much harder to find a new job.

“We suffered a lot,” Elisa remembers. “But now [after the convictions] it is time to celebrate.”

ISMAEL AND ARCELIA

Arcelia Ortiz married Ismael Portillo in 1970. One year later, he started working at Ford. They bought their family home in 1973. Life was good, but in April 1976, it suddenly fell to pieces.

Arcelia was just 25 years old when her husband was kidnapped from Ford’s plant in General Pacheco. She received a telegram saying that her husband hadn’t shown up for work, but something seemed to be wrong. She didn’t understand what was going on.

Like Troiani, Portillo was taken to the Tigre police station, then transferred to the Villa Devoto prison and later to Unit N°9 in La Plata. They were dark times for the wives – both Arcelia and Elisa recall the mistreatment they received when they visited their husbands in Devoto.

On March 26, 1977, Arcelia went to see Molinari at the Campo de Mayo military garrison. Desperately she pleaded with the official for her husband’s release.

“Tell me why you took him,” she remembers asking.

“I’m not responsible for what happened to your husband,” the lieutenant colonel responded, checking his list.

Arcelia remembers seeing that list, and that crucially, it featured Ford’s letterhead at the top of it. In court, that fact would eventually form part of the evidence that proved executives at the company provided the names of those who had to be illegally detained.

“From that day, I knew Molinari had that list. [And] from that day on, I decided not to forget. Every day I got up and remembered the list. I had hope that we would eventually be heard,” she says.

Ismael would eventually be released on March 30, 1977 – almost one year after his illegal detention at the plant.

Today, after years of waiting, Arcelia feels as if weight has been lifted: “Having a court saying that Ford was responsible for what happened to us was like a breath of fresh air.”

MORE TO KNOW

Today, Estela Gareis is a retired teacher. Yet she was just 10 years old when her father, Carlos Gareis, was abducted from Ford’s factory on April 12,1976. But he never shared

It was only in 2011, after listening to a radio interview with ex-Ford workers Carlos Propato and Pedro Troiani, that she finally put two and two together, she says, linking her father’s detention to his position as a Ford employee. She went to the offices of Radio Nacional, desperately seeking to speak with the duo. And she did.

Later that year, in April, 2011, her father would meet again with his former colleagues, when the Tigre police station was marked and recognised as a clandestine detention centre during the dictatorship.

Proparto and Troiani couldn’t believe it. They had believed all these years that Gareis hadn’t survived.

“I asked my dad why he didn’t tell me,” she recalls. “And he said: ‘Why should I talk about torture and mistreatment? That’s something that happened to me.’”

Eventually, they would speak about it. After his release, it was difficult to find a new job, he told her. He would finally find some work selling insurance for TVs. In later years, he worked in a metal workshop.

“My mother shouldered the situation,” Estela remembers. “For us, there was a life before and after Ford.”

THE TRIAL

The trial that ended this week lasted almost a year. Three judges inside federal Oral Court (TOF) No. 1 of San Martín spent months investigating the abduction of 24 workers from Ford Motor Argentina in the 1970s and hearing evidence in court.

The terror was felt throughout the factory among workers. Seventeen of the Ford employees were kidnapped at the plant itself.

Due to several delays, only two executives would eventually sit in the dock: Müller, the manufacturing manager, and Sibilla, the man in charge of the security at the factory. Sibilla – who in later life would serve as a security officer at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires until 2004 – had already retired from the Army when the abductions took place, but he nonetheless got a promotion immediately after the abductions, lawyers for the victims, Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta and Tomás Ojea Quintana said during the trial.

Though they can still appeal the sentences, all three of the defendants on trial this week have been handed jail terms of over a decade.

“We are satisfied with the verdict,” prosecutor Marcelo García Berro told the Times this week. “We were able to prove that these kidnappings operated as an internal purge, as the majority of those who were kidnapped were union activists.”

While the trial and his conclusion will undoubtedly have repercussions at home, some have already began speculating as to whether it will have implications outside the country.

“It is clear that Ford Motor Company had control of the Argentine subsidiary during the ‘70s,” Ojea Quintana told the Reuters news agency this week. “Therefore, there is a direct responsibility of Ford Motor Company and that might give us the possibility to bring the case to the US courts.”

Following the ruling, the firm issued a press release saying that it was aware of the verdict and that it has always cooperated with the courts, an assertion that García Berro casts doubt over.

This is the third time a court has convicted business leaders in Argentina, though not all the verdicts have survived legal appeals. In 2012, Emilio and Julio Méndez received convictions related to the murder of Carlos Moreno, a lawyer who represented workers in Tandil. The duo have given up farmland in order to house a clandestine detention centre. Then in 2016, businessman Marcos Levín was sentenced to 12 years in jail for his role as a “necessary participant” in the 1977 kidnapping and torture of Víctor Cobos, a former unionist. However, the Federal Cassation Court acquitted him of those charges last year.

A new trial investigating crimes committed against workers from the Mercedes Benz auto-manufacturer is set to start in March next year, though no civilians will be in the dock.

According to the Attorney General’s Office for Crimes Against Humanity’s records, as of December 1, 887 people have been sentenced for crimes against humanity in Argentina, though most of them involve ex-military officers.

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Luciana Bertoia

Luciana Bertoia

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