When Ford Built a Torture Chamber

In the 1970s, Ford was doing more than making cars — they were helping torture and kill leftists.

Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla at the opening of 1976's ''Exposicion Rural'' in Palermo, Buenos Aires. Edgardo E. Carbajal / Wikipedia

On March 25th, 1976, one day after the military coup that brought the bloody Argentine dictatorship of General Videla to power, a director at Ford Motor Company´s main production plant summoned the union representatives to a meeting. Guillhermo Gallaraga, the director of labor relations, together with a military official, read out an official declaration calling on workers to forget any union demands. Gallarago went on to add: “All the problems are over, Ford Motor Company in Argentina has become an objective and priority of the military.”

Tomas Quintana, a lawyer now representing the workers, described the scene that unfolded over the next few weeks on the Ford Factory floor: “The majority were kidnapped while they were on the production line. They were taken at gunpoint and made to walk by all the other workers so they could see what happened to their union representatives. This created an environment of terror in the workplace which prevented any demands, over salaries, over working conditions, over anything.”

Carlos Propato described how on April 13th he was kidnapped by military officials. Alongside four other workers, he was taken to the recreation center. What had once served as a socializing and organizing space for the workers was transformed into one of the many interrogation and torture centers constructed by the new military dictatorship. Carlos was tortured from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. In addition to beatings, which continued from the moment he was seized, he endured the brutal electrical torture devices that had become a signature of the Argentine police and military. Interrogators would apply the electric prod to victims’ genitals, eyes, lips — anywhere to cause the maximum amount of pain and suffering. Propato described how he was electrocuted to the point of having a stroke. The impact on his health continues to this day.

When a worker was kidnapped, Ford would immediately send out a termination notice for their “failure to appear” at work. In Propato´s case, his household received the notice while military officials were torturing him inside the Ford plant. Attempts to contest notices with the argument that workers were being held within the plant were rejected by Ford.

From the plant detention center Propato was taken to the local police station, where he endured forty days of “daily torture, hunger, and filth. I lost an eye and they broke one of my vertebrae.” Some were released after a few months; in Propato’s case he faced two more years in prison before he was finally released. The ordeal did not end there, as it was almost impossible to find work and he was now disabled as a consequence of the torture. Yet despite torture, imprisonment, and unemployment, he began a long struggle for justice that is just now starting to see results.

Rank-and-File Insurgency

After more than forty years, that patient work is finally moving closer to the prosecution of a few of the company officials responsible. It’s the first time in Argentine history that directors of a multinational company will be judged for crimes against humanity. Two company directors, Pedro Müller and Francisco Sibilla, as well as ex-general Santiago Riveros, stand accused of the kidnapping and torture of twenty-four workers. Francisco Sibilla, the company director of security, actively participated in at least one of the torture sessions, suggesting questions to the interrogators. Pedro Muller was the director of manufacturing and second in command in the Ford plant’s corporate hierarchy. The president of the company and the director of labor relations were also both accused, but died before the case could advance.

The history of Ford’s active collaboration with the dictatorship is clear. Indisputably, they hosted a military interrogation center on plant property. They provided military officials with employee identification cards and helped the military draw up lists of union activists and leftists. While the case going forward pertains to the twenty-four workers, the crimes committed by the dictatorship and Ford did not end there. While an exact number is difficult to come by, the forced disappearance — murder — of at least five Ford workers has been documented.

Ford, like many of the era’s national and multinational businesses, helped to promote, support, and collaborate with military officials in order to exterminate union activists. What took place on the factory floor was quite literally a form of corporate-sponsored terrorism. Through torture, fear, and the very real threat of death at the hands of the dictatorship, Ford succeeded in decimating worker activism and ensuring its own profitability.

Workers at Ford, along with others across the country in the 1970s, were protagonists in a powerful rank-and-file workers’ movement. A new wave of organizing had begun around basic issues of worker safety. Those in the chassis department were dying of lead poisoning and lung cancer from toxic fumes on the production line. When they inevitably became too sick to work, the company would fire them and provide barely enough compensation to the families to pay for the funerals.

To build rank-and-file organization and fight for even basic health and safety needs, the workers quickly found themselves struggling on two fronts: against the company, and against the leadership of their own union. As Propato recalled in an interview, “the union bureaucracy was one of the greatest traitors that we had in this era.” The government in the lead-up to the coup, that of Isabel Peron, had its strongest support among the leaders of the union bureaucracy. To suppress the Left and secure governability, there was an ever greater expansion of the “Triple A” — the Argentinian Anti-Communist Alliance — which carried out the kidnapping, torture, and assassination of socialist and trade union activists.

Worker militants like Propato succeeded in driving the bureaucracy from the shop floor, and a large rank-and-file movement of activists built itself up across the Buenos Aires industrial zones, staking out a position of class independence. Over the course of 1975, this movement coalesced into “coordinating committees,” which united workers across Buenos Aires factories. In April of that year, one of the largest working-class marches in history was organized. Propato recalled how the right to march was secured by seizing a gas truck and declaring to the police that if they attempted to repress the march everyone would go flying across the province.

This militant working-class spirit increasingly clashed with government attempts to implement ever more stringent austerity measures. Later that year, rank-and-file discontent forced the unions to call a general strike against the latest austerity measures, in the so-called “Rodrigazo” — named for the disgraced economic minister who proposed the economic reforms. The strike showed definitively that the government of Isabel Peron and her allies in the union bureaucracy were no longer capable of controlling working-class discontent.

At high levels of the business and military elite, plans for a military coup were set in motion.

Remembering the Carnage

The terror that unfolded in 1976 on the Ford factory floor was part of a conscious and deliberate plan to terrorize Argentina’s working class into submission. The physical annihilation of the Left and trade union militancy was seen as essential to restoring the stability and profitability of capitalist industry in Argentina.

In an era when even a hint of left-wing affiliation could be a death sentence, the fact that the twenty-four tortured workers were ultimately released reflected the state’s recognition that they were “only” trade union activists. The goal of the torture was terror: making it clear to every worker, as they watched their union leaders taken away at rifle point, that resisting exploitation was a potential death sentence. If they complained, if they organized, they could be next.

The Ford case underscores the active collaboration of multinational firms in the horrific atrocities of Argentina´s military dictatorship. This was the real purpose of military intervention: to unleash an unprecedented campaign of state and corporate terrorism in workplaces across the country. Some of the military officials directly responsible for the concentration camps, torture, and mass assassinations of leftists have since been prosecuted. Yet the fortunes accumulated on this grizzly foundation have remained untouched. Economically, socially and politically, modern Argentina remains the product of this gruesome blood sacrifice.

Current Argentinian president Mauricio Macri, like most of Argentina´s hereditary elite, is no exception. The Macri business group grew from seven firms in 1973, during the brief democratic opening, to forty-seven by the end of the dictatorship. A fortune was made from key construction and privatization contracts, all of which required close ties to military officials to secure. In 1982, the state even assumed $180 million of the group´s private debt.

The case plays an important role in highlighting the active collaboration of multinational corporations with the terror unleashed by the military dictatorship. In the current political environment, it will not be easy to secure a conviction; Macri’s government has frequently attempted to diminish the scale of the political genocide. Recently a notorious torturer from the military dictatorship, Miguel Etchecolatz, was allowed to leave prison for a lax regime of house arrest, despite remaining implicated in the 2006 disappearance of Julio Lopez, a key witness in the legal case against him.

Yet it is precisely this attempt to bury the past and usher in a neoliberal post-history that makes the struggle for long-delayed justice all the more important. Propato underscored this point as he reflected on his long struggle for justice.

We are simply a page in a history book of what has already been forty-two years, of a struggle without quarter, in which many of us fell on the path. However, what is important is to say to the new generations that we must be united, that we all belong to the same working class and we must be united. That all of this that happened to our generation does not happen again, that these big businesses like Ford Motors Argentina, General Motors, Mercedez-Benz, can´t do this again. For this the new generations need to work together and know the history of what happened in the ‘70s; we weren’t the best but we fought for this cause which was worth it. The new generations need to raise up again the workers banner and feel that they truly are workers, not that they belong to another social class. The worker is a worker.

The history of this struggle remains just as important to those of us in the United States or Europe, or any of the global headquarters of these multinational companies. As we work to rebuild the labor movement we must restore the international solidarity that once lay at its core. The next time companies like Ford work to unleash terror upon our brothers and sisters abroad — whether in Argentina, or more likely today in Honduras or Egypt — we must keep this history in mind and prepare to carry the struggle for their defense into the heart of empire.