In the latest attempt to achieve justice for abuses committed under the Brazilian military regime from 1964-1985, the Federal Labor Prosecutor’s Office summoned Volkswagen representatives to a hearing in Brasilia to respond to evidence of abuses including torture and murder on property in the northern state. From Barra, better known as Fazenda Valle do Rio Cristalino.
“There have been massive and systematic violations of human rights and Volkswagen is directly responsible,” Attorney General Rafael Garcia told AFP.
He said the public would be an initial contact “to see if a settlement can be reached” without opening criminal proceedings.
Volkswagen declined to comment on the specifics of the case, saying it first needed to “clarify all allegations”.
A spokeswoman for Volkswagen Brasil told AFP by email that the company was “committed to contributing very seriously to the investigation.”
In 2020, Volkswagen agreed to pay 36 million reais ($6.4 million at the time) in compensation for its cooperation with Brazil’s secret police during the dictatorship to identify suspected leftist opponents and union leaders in its local operation, who were then arrested and tortured.
That settlement caught the eye of Riccardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who spent years collecting evidence of abuse on his Volkswagen farm after moving to Pará in 1977 and hearing what he says were harrowing stories from the victims.
Resende asked AFP if the company could be held accountable for this case, and decided to share his files with prosecutors.
You can’t fix someone who has been tortured by paying compensation. “The suffering of women whose sons and husbands went to the farm and never came back — there is no compensation for that pain,” said the 70-year-old pastor.
But there could be a symbolic compensation. I think it is necessary.”
Rezende’s testimonies of hundreds of pages and other documents convinced prosecutors to put together a task force, which spent three years compiling evidence – shortened to the file they will now present to VW.
In it, the victims tell investigators that they were lured onto a 70,000 hectare (173,000 acre) ranch with false promises of lucrative jobs, then forced to cut through the bush under harsh conditions for their Volkswagen cattle ranch, which for a while has become the largest in Pará.
Prosecutors said the workers were kept in “debt bondage” by being forced to buy food and supplies from the farm at exorbitant prices.
They said that those who tried to escape were beaten, tied to trees and left for days by armed guards who violently monitored the workforce.
In one case, 3 witnesses said that armed men kidnapped a working wife and raped her as punishment after he tried to escape.
“There were very serious abuses,” Rezende said, estimating that hundreds and possibly thousands of workers were essentially enslaved from 1974 to 1986.
Volkswagen in the woods?
What was a German automaker doing raising livestock in the Brazilian Amazon in the first place?
The story is a window into how the military regime saw the Amazon, and helps explain why the world’s largest rainforest is so threatened today.
It was a time when Brazil was pressing urgently to develop rainforests, which the regime considered backward, luring settlers with promised riches and a motto: “A land without men for men without land.”
The government also lured companies. Rezende said Volkswagen has taken advantage of tax breaks and negative interest loans for cutting down forests to develop a farm, not to mention close ties to the system.
On the other hand, Volkswagen liked the dictatorship. On the other hand, it was a very profitable business.
“It could have 6000 people working for almost free.”
Authorities say such practices were common in the Amazon, even after the dictatorship.
Garcia said that holding other companies accountable will depend on gathering sufficient evidence.
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