The German automotive group Volkswagen faces a hearing before Brazilian prosecutors on Tuesday for “serious” human rights violations, including slavery, allegedly committed on a farm that operated in Brazil during the military dictatorship.
Investigators have assembled a 90-page dossier they say documents years of atrocities committed by VW executives and hired guns on a cattle ranch the company owned in the Amazon rainforest basin in the 1970s and 1980s. .
In an attempt to find out what happened during the military regime (1964-1985), the federal prosecutor’s office for labor affairs summoned representatives of the world’s second-largest car manufacturer to a hearing in Brasilia to answer for the alleged abuses.
The accusations include alleged torture and murders committed at the Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino, in the northern state of Pará.
“There were serious and systematic violations of human rights, and Volkswagen is directly responsible,” Rafael García, the main prosecutor in the case, told AFP.
The hearing will be the initial contact “to see if an agreement can be reached” without opening a criminal proceeding, he added.
Volkswagen has declined to comment on the case, saying it needs “clarity on all allegations” first.
But the company is “committed to contributing very seriously to the investigations,” a spokeswoman for VW Brazil told AFP.
In 2020, the German group agreed to pay 36 million reais ($6.4 million at the time) in compensation for having collaborated with the Brazilian secret police during the dictatorship to identify suspected leftist opponents and local union leaders who were later detained and killed. tortured.
That deal caught the attention of Ricardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who spent years collecting evidence of abuse at the farm after moving to Pará in 1977 and hearing what he says were lurid stories.
Rezende wondered if the company could also be held accountable for those cases and decided to share the hundreds of testimonies collected with prosecutors, who formed a task force that spent three years collecting more evidence.
“You cannot fix the suffering of someone who suffers from torture by paying reparations,” the 70-year-old priest told AFP. “But there may be symbolic reparation. And I think it’s necessary.”
In the file, the victims say they were lured to the ranch with false promises of lucrative jobs. They were then forced to cut down the jungle under grueling conditions to make room for Volkswagen’s cattle ranch, which became the largest in Pará.
Workers were held in “debt slavery” by being forced to buy food and supplies at exorbitant prices, prosecutors said.
Those who tried to escape were beaten, tied to trees and left there for days by armed guards, they said.
In one case, three witnesses said armed men kidnapped and raped a worker’s wife in retaliation for trying to run away.
“There were extremely serious abuses,” said Rezende, who estimates the number of enslaved workers in the thousands.
The VW story is evidence of how the military regime viewed the Amazon and helps explain why the world’s largest rainforest is under threat.
So Brazil urgently promoted the development of the jungle, which the dictatorship considered backward, promising land to settlers and launching policies to attract companies.
Volkswagen benefited from tax breaks and favorable loans for clearing the jungle to develop the farm, not to mention its close ties to the regime, Rezende said.
“On the one hand, Volkswagen loved the dictatorship. On the other, it was a very profitable business,” he added. “You could have 6,000 people working practically for free.”
Authorities affirm that these practices were widespread in the Amazon, even after the dictatorship.
But holding other companies accountable will depend on getting enough evidence, Garcia said.