Buenos Aires

Over café cortado in his working-class living room, Pedro Troiani recounts how, thirty years ago, at 9 in the morning, his number came up.

It was April 13, 1976, some three weeks into a bloody dictatorship that would eventually kill an estimated 30,000 Argentines branded as leftist subversives. Troiani, now 64, showed up for work as usual at Ford Motor Company’s General Pacheco factory, a 5,000-employee facility near Buenos Aires. Troiani, a labor delegate who often pressed managers for better working conditions, took his place on the factory floor and started painting a new Ford F-100 pickup, the same model his problems drove up in. “I even remember the color of the truck I was painting,” he says. “It was white. I looked up and saw the soldiers drive up in a Ford 100. Some others walked along beside it. One of them said to me, ‘You are detained.’ I asked him to let me get my documents, and he said, ‘You won’t need them where you are going.'”

The weeks of clandestine detention and torture that followed form part of a new lawsuit here accusing Ford of colluding with Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla’s military government to rid itself of labor problems, specifically twenty-five delegates and company employees who were kidnapped by soldiers, tortured and released after days, weeks or months.

The alleged acts are bundled into a criminal complaint seeking the arrests of former company officials and a request that a judge open legal doors to an eventual civil suit against the company. While Mercedes Benz has been questioned for similar acts, it’s the first legal process initiated here against a private corporation for its role in the “dirty war.” And it paints a violent picture of military-industrial collusion. As Ford churned out vehicles for the regime, a clandestine military detention center operated on factory grounds; military helicopters moved factory equipment into place; managers handed over names and IDs of problem employees; soldiers moved in and out of the plant’s human resources office, often with personnel folders in hand. The suit claims problem employees were often taken at work, and for no reason but “bad behavior.” Others were dragged from their homes by men who used the victim’s work credentials to identify him. After days in detention, the men were fired by Ford for “abandonment of work.”

“They used the military to get rid of the labor movement,” says Troiani. “They wanted to be able to run the factory without us.”

Tomas Ojea Quintana, Troiani’s lawyer, worked for three years to sew together the evidence. The suit, which is both criminal and civil, seeks the arrest of an ex-soldier and four former company officials, including a security chief Quintana says later worked at the US Embassy. Quintana is also asking a judge to nullify the two-year statute of limitations on civil suits in cases in which the suits involve human rights, a request that, if granted, would set legal precedent and open Ford to eventual monetary damages. “If he rules in our favor, this will set a historical precedent and potentially open the door for other suits like this,” Quintana said.

Quintana says his case was aided by declassified US State Department documents that helped map the extent of industrial cooperation with state forces. In 1978 a US Embassy official in Buenos Aires wrote to Washington to report on “disappeared” workers at an Argentine ceramics plant. The document said US officials in Argentina believed there existed “in general a high degree of cooperation between [company] directors and security agencies directed to eliminate terrorist infiltrators from industry workplaces and minimize the risk of industrial conflict.”

Quintana says he thinks he has a “fifty-fifty chance” of winning. The social and legal climate is surely ripe. In 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court overturned a controversial amnesty law that since 1984 had granted legal immunity to junta leaders. Eleonora Rabinovich, an Argentine lawyer and journalist, says Argentines typically recognize “that the climate is turning more and more positive toward this kind of litigation, especially with the government promoting the revocation of the pardons [of military officials] and the reopening of several cases” of human rights violations. While no government official would comment directly on the case, Nurea Pedregal, a spokesperson for the Under Secretariat for Human and Social Rights, which disburses financial payments to families harmed by the dictatorship, says the Argentine government stands ready to recognize and pay anyone proven to have had a family member disappeared by the regime.

For Quintana, for now at least, it’s more about truth than dollars. “Ford lawyers have not had to answer to anything official until now,” he says. “We are not even talking about money now. We want the company to confess its role.”

Ford representatives in Argentina, Germany and the United States failed to respond to interview requests.

As Troiani and millions of Argentines come to grips with a bloody past, a new and controversial law makes March 24, the anniversary of the coup, a national holiday, a time to remember so as not to repeat. In the meantime, Troiani’s wife, Elisa, still doesn’t know how or when to explain the bad things to her young grandchild. He walked into the living room while I was on the couch. “He asked who you were,” Elisa told me, saying he’s still too young to understand. “I had to tell him you were Pedro’s friend who came to visit. What could I say?”