The Ford Falcon: Death-mobile

 

“It was a death-mobile, the embodiment of terror. Whenever a Falcon drove by we knew there would be kidnappings, disappearance, torture, murder.”

Eduardo Pavlovsky

The Ford Falcon design team was led by Robert McNamara who wanted a new Model-T — a car that was inexpensive and reliable. In 1960, before he left for the Kennedy White House, McNamara saw his car in production. Two of the new cars were shipped to Argentina in 1961 as exemplars for local manufacture.

A Green Ford Falcon

A new middle class was forming in Argentina, people with reasonably good jobs who could afford a new car. The Ford plant at La Boca began turning out Falcons in 1962. This was a popular car, a reliable, affordable vehicle that was much appreciated by Argentineans. Alejandro Hernandez, member of the Friends of the Falcon Club: “In Argentina we have classics like the tango, mate (tea), soccer and the Falcon. It’s a national lifestyle. It’s as Argentine as the gaucho… I was born at home and my father always had a Falcon, he took it to work and it went through the mud taking the whole family out to the countryside.”

By 1973, the Argentinean Falcon was almost entirely made in that country, only 26 of more than 3000 parts had to be imported, and the car had undergone several design makeovers, distinguishing it from the US model. It is the best-selling car in Argentina’s history.  But internal tensions were building in Argentina and, in 1976, military forces seized power.

Police checking their weapons outside their Falcon, circa 1978

“It’s not the Falcon’s fault. The police probably just needed a car that didn’t break down, so they got Falcons,” says Alejandro Hernandez. The regular police got Falcons painted in regular police black and white, but the secret police and the paramilitary organizations tended to prefer dark green vehicles. Soon, the sight of a green falcon was enough to frighten every Argentinean who saw it.

The paramilitary units had been operating for several years before the 1976 coup. They kidnapped, tortured, and murdered labor leaders, journalists, and anyone else deemed a subversive. Most active opposition to the junta was murdered at the beginning of the coup, then the police went after anyone they wished. Thirty thousand people simply disappeared during the period of The Dirty War, 1976 -1983.

In 1976, a group of high school students protested high bus fares and the secret police disappeared them. One of these children was the sixteen-year-old daughter of state senator Mendes de Falcone (yes) and his wife Nelva. Their son went into hiding and the parents took him food and supplies when they could in their (yes) green falcon. One night they were stopped by the secret police and driven away in an official green falcon. Nelva was tortured with a cattle prod and her husband forced to watch. A month later, they were released but the senator died soon after of a heart attack. Their green Falcon was located and Nelva drove it home. Then she  banded with others who had loved ones among the disappeared. Soon they organized the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an organization that demonstrated and demanded answers from the Argentine government for years even as some of its members were themselves disappeared. Nelva’s daughter has never been accounted for.

Nelva and her Falcon (from the documentary, "Falcon: Can A Car Be Guilty of Murder?)

One of the government’s first targets was the Ford plant itself. The auto-workers union, SMATA, was largely compliant with official demands, but a growing contingent of young workers wanted something more than wage-slavery to an oppressive regime; they became increasingly important and began to show some real power. In 1976, the Ford workers had just won a new contract that emphasized safety issues and working conditions. The morning that the new contract was to take effect, workers, especially union delegates, began disappearing.

Actually troops had been patrolling the Ford factory for a year, invited in by the company under the pretext of defending against violent Marxists. The relationship between the Army and corporations was already developed before the coup. Now the workplace became a place of terror. One worker was told by his foreman that he would be taken away that day. “Don’t leave your place on the line,” he was told, “they’re watching.” Twenty-five workers were taken away from the plant; their wives were given pink slips saying that their husbands were fired for failure to report for work even though most of them had been abducted from the factory.

Fifteen of the many disappeared workers survived and they have undertaken a lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company (others are suing Chrysler-Daimler for more or less the same crimes). They say the company was complicit in the kidnappings, torture, and murder. Ford says that this was all the work of government forces and that such crimes are strictly against company policy.

"Falcon", a sculpture by Daniel Acosta who was kidnapped and imprisoned for five years.

 

After the junta’s collapse, Argentina officially adopted a policy of forgive-and-forget. The Mothers of the Plaza Mayo refused to do either and the official policy has lost its force. So far there have been a few trials and convictions of junta members for their crimes. Attempts have been made to bring criminal charges against Ford.

Meanwhile, the Falcon is still a well-known Argentine car. Some refuse to have anything to do with the vehicle; the very sight of a Falcon, especially a green Falcon, upsets them:

“They are a symbol of repression,” said Miriam Lewin, a 49-year-old journalist who was kidnapped in a Falcon in the 1970s and forced into the trunk of another Falcon when she was moved from one political detention center to another.

But at least one Falcon owner has added a sign in his car’s window: “My car is not to blame” and nunca mas, “Never Again”, the current slogan of those trying to put Argentina back together.

Then there is this: After Argentina’s 2001 debt crisis, a number of worker-controlled factories and workshops were set up by people unwilling to go under with the wealthy elites that had bankrupted the country. Ever since, the usual suspects have been trying to shut these enterprises down. In 2005, somebody abducted the wife of a Ceramica Zanon employee — Zanon being one of the most successful of the worker-run factories. The woman was tortured and mutilated and given a warning that Zanon’s union would “run red with blood”, then she was driven away and dumped by the road. The car that was used was (yes) a green Falcon.

Much of this article comes from a feature documentary, Falcon: Can A Car be Guilty of Murder? So far as I know, it is not in general release.

Information about the Ford plant and the government comes from “The Falcon Remembered”, a NACLA Report on the Americas paper.

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5 comments on “The Ford Falcon: Death-mobile

  1. The Nag says:

    I heard this story a couple of years ago when I was in Buenos Aires. I also saw a few of the old Falcons on the streets.

    • mikulpepper says:

      I first heard about this on an episode of Art of the Heist (which will probably be a future subject for the Shrine). I was surprised that people had so demonized this vehicle but they were quite clear on the fact that the Falcon was connected to Evil.

  2. [...] that they were willing to peddle national pride to any buyer. Some had reported seeing a green Ford Falcon death car – the favored vehicle of the secret police – parked outside the museum that [...]

  3. Maynard'sDad says:

    From what I’ve been reading, this might be a good choice for the new Pope-mobile!

  4. […] especially one painted dark green, stirs those memories and causes the pain to begin again. It is a horrible legacy for what everyone agrees was an otherwise fine […]

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