Ford Motor is linked to Argentina's 'dirty war'; role in detentions laid to company

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Author: Larry Rohter
Date: Nov. 27, 2002
From: The New York Times(Vol. 152)
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,019 words

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Pedro Troiani was at work on the assembly line at the Ford Motor plant here one morning in April 1976 when more than a dozen heavily armed men burst into the factory and made their way toward him, he recalled recently.

At gunpoint, he said, he was paraded through the plant and driven in a company truck to a soccer field in the factory complex where, he said, the Argentine Army had set up a barracks and detention center.

He described being bound with wire, kicked and held for eight hours on the factory grounds. Mr. Troiani, a labor leader at the time, said he and four other Ford employees were then transferred to a secret prison and eventually to a special detention camp as part of the ''dirty war'' against anyone considered a leftist opponent by the military dictatorship that ruled this country from 1976 to 1983.

A spokesman for Ford here, Rolo Ceretti, said he could neither confirm nor deny Mr. Troiani's account ''because these events happened 26 years ago and most of the people who worked at the company no longer do.''

But, he said, ''to talk of a detention center within our plant is not correct.''

''This was a very sad and bitter time,'' he added, ''and no one can defend what happened. But to attempt to place responsibility on the company for things that happened at the level of government seems to me to be a bit absurd.''

Based in part on Mr. Troiani's account, a federal prosecutor here filed a criminal complaint against Ford Argentina this month and ordered an investigation into the company's conduct under the junta that ruled this country. It charges that Ford and its senior executives ''managed, participated in or covered up the illegal detention'' of Mr. Troiani and nearly two dozen other employees.

In an interview, Mr. Troiani said: ''Jail was pure terror because people were disappearing all the time and you didn't know if you were going to be the next to be killed. A lot of time has passed, but the truth is that Ford and its executives colluded in the kidnapping of its own workers, and I think they should be held responsible for that.''

Over the next year, he says, he was repeatedly beaten, tortured and deprived of sleep and food.

The case is an outgrowth of similar charges made against Mercedes-Benz, today a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler. A total of 16 workers at its plant in a suburb of Buenos Aires were abducted either at home or on the job from 1976 to 1977. All but two are assumed to have been killed.

The Mercedes-Benz hearings have been going on for four years, propelled largely by the effort of a German journalist, Gabriele Weber, who has published her findings in a book in German, ''The Disappeared of Mercedes-Benz.'' But the inquiry has received relatively little attention here because most Argentines are focused on the country's current economic collapse and are not eager to reopen an even more painful chapter of their history.

DaimlerChrysler Argentina did not respond to several phone calls requesting comment on the investigation. But Ursula Mertzig, a spokeswoman for the parent corporation in Germany, said the company was cooperating fully and was confident that no wrongdoing had occurred. ''We have no hint that our management was involved in the disappearance of the 14 workers, which we regret very much,'' she said.

During the 1980's, an investigation by the National Commission on Disappeared Persons, a government body, found that abductions of workers occurred at Ford, Mercedes-Benz and other factories owned by both Argentine and foreign interests, including shipyards, steel mills and pharmaceutical plants.

By some accounts, about half of the estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people who disappeared during the dictatorship were workers or union leaders.

The prosecutor who filed the charges against Ford, Felix Crous, said both automakers not only colluded with the military, but also profited as the junta's campaign of kidnappings and killings made targets of workers and union leaders.

Each company, he said, had particularly close ties with the military as suppliers. Mercedes-Benz made trucks for the army, while Ford made the greenish-gray Falcons used by death squads in the kidnapping of thousands of people.

Ken Zino, executive director of international public affairs at Ford headquarters in Michigan, said: ''Our situation is not analogous to Mercedes-Benz. We are aware of the allegations, but have yet to see anything and will respond at the appropriate time.''

Both Ford and Mercedes-Benz were targets of the left-wing Montonero urban guerrilla movement during the chaotic period of political violence that preceded the March 1976 military takeover in Argentina.

A Mercedes-Benz executive was kidnapped and released only after the payment of a multimillion-dollar ransom. Ford withdrew its American employees from Argentina after at least two executives were ambushed and killed and others were injured between 1973 and 1975.

Mr. Ceretti, the Ford Argentina spokesman, said the threats ''led Ford to ask for army protection for a time,'' but he added, ''That is different from a detention center.''

The day after Mr. Troiani was abducted, his wife says, she received a telegram from Ford warning that he was ''absent without authorization'' and would be fired unless he reported back to work immediately.

Mrs. Troiani replied with a telegram ''saying that management knew perfectly well that I had been detained in the plant,'' Mr. Troiani said. But Mr. Troiani said he was treated simply as an absentee employee and was formally dismissed as soon as Argentine law permitted.

Mr. Ceretti, the Ford Argentina spokesman, said it was standard procedure at the time to dismiss absentee workers after they had been given proper warning.

After being held for nearly a year in three different prisons, Mr. Troiani said, he was then released to care for a sick child. Eventually, he opened an auto body shop, which he continues to operate today.

A court rejected his efforts to collect back pay from Ford for the time he was imprisoned, ruling that by the time he filed, after the fall of the dictatorship, the statute of limitations had expired.

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