Argentina: Ford Motor investigated for ‘dirty war’ torture

On Dec. 5 Argentine judge Alicia Vence opened an investigation into the possible involvement of four former executives of Ford Motor Company’s Argentine subsidiary in the kidnapping and torture of at least 25 autoworkers during the “dirty war” against suspected leftists under the 1976-83 military dictatorship. According to prosecutor Félix Crous, former Ford Motor Argentina president Nicolás Courard, former manufacturing director Pedro Müller, former industrial relations director Guillermo Galarraga and former security chief Héctor Sibilla are suspected of collaborating with the military in the abuses, which took place in 1976 next to the company’s plant in the city of General Pacheco in Buenos Aires province, just north of the city of Buenos Aires.

Previously the only person facing charges in the case had been military commander Santiago Riveros, who has already been convicted of other crimes of state terrorism. Ford Motor acknowledges that it asked for military protection during the period, saying two executives were murdered and two others were wounded in attacks by the Montoneros rebel groups from 1973 to 1975, but the company denies that its plant was used as a torture center.

Workers were a principal target of the “dirty war”; 30% of the estimated 30,000 people disappeared worked in factories. Executives from a number of companies are now under investigation for possible human rights abuses during the dictatorship. The companies include Mercedes-Benz  Argentina and Acindar, a metal manufacturing firm now owned by ArcelorMittal. José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the dictatorship’s economy minister from 1976 to 1981, is a former Acindar president; he was arrested in May 2010 in connection with the kidnapping of industrialist Federico Gutheim and his son Miguel Gutheim. Food processing and biofuel magnate Carlos Pedro Blaquier also faces charges of collaborating with the military during the period. Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, now an adviser to the Argentine Chamber of Deputies’ Human Rights Commission, is supporting Blaquier’s claim of innocence. (El País, Madrid, Dec. 6, from correspondent)

These charges come while a court in the capital is hearing the third trial on crimes committed at the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) during the dictatorship. Some 5,000 detainees were held there; most never returned. The trial is the largest ever dealing with the “dirty war”: 68 defendants are charged with crimes against 789 people, with about 900 witnesses expected to testify over two years. The trial started on Nov. 28; as of Dec. 9 the charges were still being read.

In the first trial the only defendant, former navy officer Héctor Febres, was charged with participating in torture, kidnapping and other crimes. Febres was found dead in his cell on Dec. 11, 2007, two days before he was to be sentenced; he died of a heart attack, but traces of cyanide were found in his body, and the death is considered a suicide. The second trial resulted in the conviction of 16 former military and police officers; 12 of them, including former Navy captain and spy Alfredo Astiz (“The Blond Angel of Death”), were sentenced to life in prison on Oct. 26, 2011, while four received shorter sentences.

The current trial is the first to deal with the notorious “death flights,” in which as many as 1,000 of the ESMA detainees were drugged with pentothal, loaded on to planes, flown over the Río de la Plata, the Atlantic or the Paraná River delta, and then pushed out, naked and with their hands and feet bound. Some of the defendants were already convicted of other crimes in the second trial: Astiz, Están Jorge Acosta (“The Tiger”), Juan Antonio Azic, Adolfo Donda and Ricardo Cavallo. The new trial includes eight men charged with piloting the planes, including Juan Alberto Poch, who was working as a pilot for the Dutch airline Transavia when he was arrested in September 2009.

An important part of the evidence against the defendants comes from several corpses that washed ashore in 1977. Forensics experts identified them in 2005 as the bodies of detainees who disappeared from the ESMA, including several women from a group that Astiz had infiltrated; two founding members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that demonstrated each week in central Buenos Aires to demand the return of their disappeared children; and the French nun Léonie Duquet. Another missing nun, Alice Domon, was apparently killed on the same flight, but her body was never found; naval personnel at the base reportedly joked that Duquet and Domon were the “flying nuns.”

Another important part of the evidence resulted from investigations by Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin, who herself was detained in the ESMA. She located a plane used in the death flights, one of five Irish-built Skyvan planes that the Argentine coast guard acquired in 1971. This allowed prosecutors and human rights organizations to investigate flight logs and other records. The plane is currently used to carry goods from south Florida to the Bahamas. (IPS, Dec. 3, via Upside Down World; Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 7; El País, Dec. 9, from correspondent)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 16.