German car company Volkswagen faces a lawsuit on Tuesday (14) by the Ministry of Public Works (MPT) over alleged human rights violations on farms during Brazil’s military dictatorship, including slave labor, rape and torture.
Prosecutors compiled in a 90-page report the brutality committed by Volkswagen executives and armed guards at the cattle ranches the company owned at Amazon in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the most recent attempt to bring justice to the abuses committed during the military dictatorship (1964-1985), the MPT called representatives from Volkswagen to answer in Brasília about alleged violations, including torture and murder, at the Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino , located in the state from Pará.
“There have been serious and systematic violations of human rights, and Volkswagen is responsible,” the prosecutor in charge of the case, Rafael Garcia, told AFP.
The hearing will be a preliminary communication “to see if it is possible to reach an agreement” without opening a criminal case, he explained.
Volkswagen do Brasil preferred not to comment on the details of the case “until it is clear on all claims”. But the company “reinforces its commitment to contributing to investigations involving human rights with the utmost seriousness,” a spokesperson told AFP by email.
In 2020, the group agreed to pay 36 million in collaboration with the Department of Political and Social Affairs (Dops) during the dictatorship to identify left-wing opponents and trade union leaders, who were later arrested and tortured.
the father who decided
The program caught the attention of Father Ricardo Rezende, who spent years collecting evidence of abuse at the Volkswagen farm after he moved to Pará in 1977 and began hearing horror stories from victims.
Rezende wondered if the company could also be held responsible in this case, and decided to share its material with prosecutors, he told AFP.
“The suffering that is suffered does not create debt. The suffering of women and mothers whose children went to the fields and did not return, this pain cannot be repaired”, said the priest who is now 70 years old.
“But that will be symbolic compensation. I think it will be important,” he added.
Rezende’s hundreds of pages of testimony and other documents convinced MPT to form a task force, which spent three years gathering evidence, resulting in a document that will now be submitted to Volkswagen.
In it, the victims report to investigators that they were lured into the 70,000-hectare property with false promises of good jobs. Later, they had to clear the forest under difficult conditions to raise cattle on the farm, which was once the largest in Pará.
Workers were held in “debt slavery” as they were forced to buy food and supplies from the farm’s store at exorbitant prices, prosecutors said.
Those who tried to escape were beaten, tied to trees and left there for days by armed guards who watched the task force violently.
In one case, three witnesses said that a gunman kidnapped and raped a worker’s wife as punishment after she tried to escape.
“I think the abuse that took place is very bad,” said Rezende, who estimates that hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people were essentially enslaved between 1974 and 1986.
VW in the woods?
But what was a German carmaker doing raising cattle in the Brazilian Amazon?
The story is an example of how the military regime viewed the Amazon and helps explain why the world’s largest rainforest is threatened today.
It was at a time when Brazil was urgently seeking to develop the forest areas, which the military considered backward, settlers were lured by promises of wealth and the slogan “land without men for people without land”.
The government also attracted companies. Volkswagen has benefited from tax breaks and negative-interest loans for clearing forest to create farmland, not to mention close ties to the government, Rezende said.
“On the one hand, Volkswagen liked the dictatorship. On the other hand, it was a very profitable business. It could have 6,000 people working almost for free”, he commented.
According to the authorities, such practices were common in the Amazon region, even after the end of the military dictatorship.
Being able to hold the company accountable will depend on gathering enough evidence, noted Garcia.