Torture, hunger and work at gunpoint in the middle of the Amazon. The horrors committed in a former farm of the German multinational Volkswagen in times of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985) have come to light with an investigation of the Prosecutor’s Office for slavery practices.
The complaints describe the then “Hacienda Vale do Rio Cristalino”, known as “Hacienda Volkswagen” and dedicated to the raising cattlelike hell located in Santana do Araguaia, state of Pará (north).
There, it is estimated that hundreds of workers lived in degrading conditions and were subjected to extreme violence, which included threats, torture and, at times, deadly beatingsduring the 70s and 80s, according to accounts of survivors collected by the Prosecutor’s Office.
After long years of silence, the Public Ministry of Labor (MPT) decided to investigate the case in the civil sphere and has summoned Volkswagen Brazil to a hearing next June 14, in Brasilia, so that he assumes his responsibility and repairs the damage caused.
A car assembler, raising cattle
But what was one of the world’s largest car companies doing raising cattle in the Amazon? To find the answer you have to go back to the first years of the military dictatorship.
Witnesses reported that the Volkswagen farm in the Brazilian Amazon was a center for the production of slave labor during the dictatorship. Photo: Public Ministry of Labor.
The high command of the regime, concerned with a supposed foreign occupation of the Amazon, launched a plan to populate the region at any cost under the motto “integrate not deliver”.
The dictatorship promised land to the unemployed and tax benefits to entrepreneurs. That’s where Volkswagen comes in, which had been operating in the country since the 1950s.
“The government offered subsidies, deducted taxes, gave loans with negative rates… It was something fantastic for businessmen,” says priest Ricardo Rezende, coordinator of the research group on slave labor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). and who met 600 pages of documentation about the “Volks case”.
The German assembler then set up shop, through its subsidiary “Companhia Vale do Rio Cristalino Agropecuária Comércio e Indústria”, on a farm of almost 140,000 hectares in Santana do Araguaia, and began to raise cattle for sale.
And he did it in a big way. “During a good period the ‘Hacienda Volkswagen’ had the largest cattle herd in Pará“, says the prosecutor of the MPT Rafael Garcia Rodrigues, who coordinates the group that is in charge of the investigation.
For this, it was necessary deforest and burn all that portion of jungle and transform it into grass. This work was reserved for contractors from the region, who they recruited poor and illiterate labor under the false promise of a dream job, then turned into a nightmare.
Waiting to be eaten by a jaguar
At that time, Rezende was coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), linked to the Catholic Church, for the region of Araguaia and Tocantins.
He soon began to receive complaints of “serious human rights violations” at the farm based on the testimony of workers who had managed to flee.
“They counted terrible thingsRezende recalls.
Brazilian labor prosecutors listen to witnesses and survivors of the Volkswagen estate. Photo: Public Ministry of Labor.
If they claimed better conditions or tried to flee, they were “punished”, “tied to a tree and beaten for days”, says Garcia Rodrigues. The Prosecutor’s report also includes another story about a worker who was tied up in the thick of the jungle “for a jaguar to eat.”
The authorities estimate that there were about 300 contract employees, to which must be added the hundreds of informal workers who lived in inhumane conditions.
The latter were not free until they paid the debt they had inadvertently contracted with the boss for expenses related to transportation, work and your personal life.
“They had to buy food at more expensive prices”, sometimes “in poor condition”, and “they had no drinking water, no bathroom”; “cattle were much better treated than people“, describes Rezende.
At the head of the farm, which over time Volkswagen sold to matsubara groupthere was a Swiss named Georg Brugger. Garcia Rodrigues also maintains that the Volkswagen board “had full knowledge“Of what was happening in there.
Rezende publicly denounced the events in the 1980s. Nobody paid any attention to him. The press hardly echoed.
But he continued to collect information until, in 2019, this entire dossier reached Garcia Rodrigues, who expanded the investigations and now awaits a repair from the German assembler.
Volkswagen Brazil, which in 2017 already recognized that he cooperated side by side with the dictatorshipwith “black lists” of “politically unwanted” employees, reaffirmed in a concise note “its commitment to contribute to the investigations in a very serious way.”
If the negotiations fail, Garcia Rodrigues does not rule out the judicial route, because these types of crimes are imprescriptible in a country where contemporary slavery it is still a reality.
The author is a journalist for EFE