The Secret History of Fiat Brazil’s Internal Espionage Network and Collaboration With the Military Dictatorship

The workers were a threat to the company's bottom line, so Fiat Brazil suppressed labor organizing through an internal spy ring.

In October 1978, Fiat Brazil’s workers were on the verge of their first strike. The Italian carmaker’s factory in South America would go on to become its most successful: Today, more Fiats are produced in Brazil than in any country besides Italy, and Fiats are the third most popular car in Brazil. But 40 years ago, as Fiat was growing into its Brazilian operation, turmoil was on the horizon.

At the Fiat factory in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, workers, fearing repression, had been organizing in secret. The military, which had taken power in a 1964 coup d’état, sometimes violently opposed labor organizing. Yet the Brazilian and Italian Fiat executives couldn’t ignore the palpable energy on the factory floor in Betim, the city where the Fiat plant had opened only two years earlier.

Six days before work would eventually come to a halt, Airton Reis de Carvalho, the precinct chief with the local police department, sent a letter to the military. A Fiat worker had been spending hours in front of the police station, trying to locate and free a jailed colleague who was viewed as indispensable to the push for a strike. “There really were Fiat employees who were detained,” Reis explained in his letter. “All of the measures taken by our precinct in this case were in keeping with our agreement with Colonel Joffre, of the Fiat Automotive’s security department.”

Under Joffre Mario Klein’s careful watch, Fiat had been spying on Brazilian workers in collaboration with the military dictatorship.

Reis was referencing Joffre Mario Klein, an army reserve colonel who had joined Fiat’s Brazilian operation in its early days — and who would be at the center of the company’s machinations against its own workers. Under Klein’s careful watch, the Italian carmaker had been spying on Brazilian workers in collaboration with the military dictatorship. Klein’s role in keeping Brazilian workers in check for Fiat, along with a long list of repressive moves by the company, are coming to light after a yearlong investigation by The Intercept Brasil, which tracked down documents from archives in Italy and Brazil and interviewed ex-workers at Fiat, former union leaders, and prosecutors in both countries.

The repression of labor at Fiat Brazil came thanks to coordination between the security apparatuses of the Brazilian government and a massive clandestine espionage network operated within the company itself, according to documents at the Minas Gerais public archive. Headquartered in the auto plant and commanded by Klein, Fiat’s internal espionage division employed dozens of civilian and military spies who investigated the lives of workers and helped the abusive dictatorship put agitating workers behind bars.

While Fiat’s network of spies operated far beyond the factory walls, closely tracking workers’ activities, the company also invited government repression onto its premises, according to documents from the Office for General Security, a now-defunct division of the Minas Gerais state police. The Brazilian Department of Political and Social Order, a police force known by its Portuguese initials, DOPS, operated freely among Fiat workers. DOPS was infamous for frequently taking the lead in brutal government campaigns of repression against social and political activity, and had employed torture and murder among its tactics since the 1950s. These were the dark forces infiltrating union meetings with the blessing of Fiat Brazil’s own security apparatus.

Fiat’s spying operation in Brazil had a parallel back home in Italy. Fiat engaged in the same pattern of espionage in Italy during the “Years of Lead,” a time of Italian political and social turmoil in the that ran from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, according to a second batch of documents from Fiat’s official archives in Turin, Italy, as well as documents from the federal courthouse in Naples, Italy.

The Italian spying operation was exposed in the 1970s, when the prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello conducted an investigation and found that Fiat had developed a system of pervasive espionage. A former secret service agent headed up the internal spy ring, and police, judges, and ex-military men were all implicated. The spies compiled hundreds of thousands of files with information about workers’ private lives, including intimate details. The information would prove useful for Fiat in identifying union leaders and ferreting out strike plans. Years after the investigation was complete, the case finally went to court, and some public officials and Fiat executives were convicted. While many of the details have come to public light, however, the history of the Italian spy ring is likely to remain a patchwork: A substantial portion of the evidentiary files from the case have disappeared.

In April 2018, in response to an initial inquiry about this story, Fiat Brazil said, “We consulted several sources in the company, but there is really no memory of such events.” In February of this year, Fiat Brazil offered the same comment in response to a detailed inquiry and declined to make company officials available for an interview. Fiat’s Italian headquarters referred The Intercept to the Brazilians’ statement and added, “Regarding the issues concerning Italy, we have no comments to make, because they are well-known things that have been reported in newspapers on many occasions in recent decades and on which books have also been written.”


Striking Fiat workers hold an assembly at the Minas Gerais factory in 1979.

Photo: Mana Coelho

The Strikes

In Minas Gerais, the strike finally came on October, 23, 1978, when Fiat’s employees on the factory floor halted their work. It would be a clash that reverberated through decades of Brazilian history, and a test not only for the plant’s managers, but for the authorities as well. For workers across the country, Fiat — which had invested substantial resources and political capital in building out its presence in Brazil — showed the possibilities of resistance in the face of long odds. Even at a company whose bosses had a close relationship with the military, there was hope, meaning that the dictatorship was not all-powerful. New strikes inside other auto companies followed. Among the workers on those picket lines was a young man named Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, who would go on to become Brazil’s 35th president a quarter-century later.

It was not supposed to be this way. At least that’s what Brazilian politicians had promised Fiat, according to a leaflet released at the time, used by Brazil’s National Institute of Industrial Development to attract foreign investment. During the negotiations to bring the carmaker to Brazil, the local governor, Rondon Pacheco, had told the Italians that his country offered a pacified labor force — they were poorly educated, “depoliticized youths,” mostly from rural areas, without a culture of labor struggle. This rosy picture of a docile workforce led local authorities to work with Fiat to set astounding production goals: They hoped to quickly build and scale up the operation so that, in short order, 190,000 new cars would roll off the factory floor every year. Those sky-high ambitions would be Fiat’s undoing. To get things moving more quickly, Fiat rushed in metallurgists from Italy and experienced toolmakers from the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and São Paulo. But these skilled workers came from home having already been steeped in organizing: Both states had union movements operating at full steam.

The newcomers quickly spurred the locals into action. They demanded not only higher wages but permission to set up a committee of worker representatives. Above all, the workers wanted a slowdown of the production lines. At the time, Fiat progressively accelerated the machines over the course of the work day, leading to physical exhaustion among workers. So the strike was organized and finally put into effect.

The work stoppage lasted five days, with the union signing an agreement in a meeting attended by only a few dozen people. But the company kept only some of the promises it had made, and tensions remained high. The following year, another strike broke out. The clashes between employees and the company had become too much for executives at the young Fiat Brazil. Only a few years in, the company had suffered a pair of strikes, so Fiat decided to play hardball. Executives at Fiat Brazil called on a man who would become infamous in the lore of Fiat Brazil workers: Col. Joffre Mario Klein.

The Rise of the Colonel

Klein joined Fiat in 1975, before the factory even opened in Minas Gerais. His hiring had been the result of an ominous recommendation: Officials with thee National Information Service, Brazil’s primary spy agency at the time, had suggested Klein for the post. After being hired, Klein got to work setting up an office at Fiat with the anodyne name “Security and Information.” Only later did it become apparent that Klein’s primary duty was the command of an internal apparatus of repression. The office, which was expressly created by Fiat, drew up dossiers on employees, but the factory workers themselves were unaware of its activities. No one even knew how many people worked for Klein — or who they were.

“We didn’t know who he was, but he appeared to be a high-ranking military type. He was feared by the workers, to whom he rarely uttered a word.”

Over time, Klein became a personal friend of Fiat Brazil’s first president, Adolfo Neves Martins da Costa. Executives at Fiat’s worldwide headquarters in Italy heaped praise on the army reservist, according to a former employee in the company’s human resources department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The closeness with top Fiat figures meant Klein acquired a tremendous amount of influence. “No one was ever hired without my husband’s knowledge,” Klein’s widow, Maria Antonieta, told The Intercept Brasil in a series of 2017 interviews, which took place some nine years after her husband died. Klein described her late husband as a “serious and meticulous” man.

Klein seemed to exude power. Workers didn’t know who he was, but they knew he made them apprehensive. “He was slim, with a well-trimmed mustache and gray slicked-back hair and was always impeccably dressed,” said Edmundo Vieira, who was president of the metalworkers union in the 1980s. “We didn’t know who he was, but he appeared to be a high-ranking military type. He was feared by the workers, to whom he rarely uttered a word.”

Antonieta recalled her husband taking at least one trip to Fiat’s international headquarters in the northern Italian city of Turin. The former Fiat human resources employee confirmed that the trip took place and added that Klein made several other journeys to Turin; Klein, the employee said, wanted to understand how the Italians controlled strikes. It would not take Klein long to learn.

Fiat had been spying on its employees for years in Italy, where there was a robust labor movement and Communist Party presence, leading to regular strikes. In an effort to gain an edge on workers, Fiat set up an archive that, at its peak, contained more than 350,000 personnel files on workers’ personal, labor, and political activity. The filing cabinets occupied an entire floor of Fiat’s former headquarters in the heart of Turin.

When Fiat’s security apparatus extended to Brazil, however, Italian Fiat workers reached out to their Latin American counterparts. “From September 26 to October 4, 1979, I was in Rio de Janeiro and Betim to monitor the strike movements and Fiat’s operations in Brazil,” Antonio Buzzigoli, a former representative of the Italian Federation of Metalworkers, told The Intercept Brasil in a lengthy interview in the kitchen of his apartment in Turin.

After returning to Italy, Buzzigoli, through the metalworkers’ union, published a report in which he alleged that there was an “armed in-house police force” at the factory in Betim. The report suggested that the security team was 70 agents strong, trained by “an Italian and later by a Brazilian.” Its function was to put psychological pressure on the workers. Buzzigoli noted that agents monitored everything: They would keep tabs on “the bathrooms, and the cafeterias, circulating among the various areas of the factory all day long.” He wrote of the regularity with which the military police entered the factory. Italian newspapers seized on the metalworkers’ report and Buzzigoli did a series of interviews about what he had seen in Brazil.


Riot police patrol the Minas Gerais factory during the strike in 1979.

Photo: Mana Coelho

Espionage, Arrests, and Firings

Within Fiat’s company archives in Turin, there is a November 1980 document about the carmaker’s Brazil operation titled “Statistics, positions, and wages.” An organizational chart shows that four employees constituted a “Security and Information” division under Klein’s direct control. But the surveillance apparatus was much larger than that — bigger even than the force Buzzigoli gleaned some knowledge of during his visit to Brazil. According to the document, 141 Fiat employees answered to the head of surveillance, Mauricio Neves, Klein’s right-hand man and second in command of the company’s security operations.

The security team took advantage of everything at their disposal to gather information that could help undermine political activity and potential labor leaders. One tack was to eavesdrop on the only available public telephone at the factory, in the courtyard; security would listen in on employees’ conversations. The labor activists took notice: Adriano Sandri, an Italian who worked at Fiat in Brazil, wrote to Buzzigoli to inform him that the telephones were monitored and that the head of surveillance kept records of all union-related calls. (The former Fiat human resources employee confirmed that phone conversations were monitored; it’s unclear what became of the records.)

Another Fiat tactic was to give current employees the opportunity to recommend new hires. The notion undergirding this move was making employees partially responsible for their recommendations’ conduct and integration into the workforce — a type of shared surveillance under the pretext of making a more congenial workplace. What’s more, active Fiat employees were effectively punished for labor organizing: Union membership all but eliminated any possibility of promotion.

Retaliatory measures against workers followed a distinct pattern. The workers who were deemed dangerous by the company were arrested under any pretext authorities could find — typically accused of stealing parts and tools — and were subsequently fired with cause.

Ézio Sena Cardoso’s story was typical. When he came to work at the plant in Betim, in October 1976, Cardoso already had 14 years of experience as an electronics technician at other companies. At Fiat, he started as an electrical maintenance mechanic for specialized machinery. A political activist, Cardoso had four prior arrests on his record. The first happened when he was 17, for participating in a protest at the gates of Mannesmann, a German conglomerate that he had never even worked for. At Fiat, Cardoso was active in mobilizing employees, although, due to political differences, he never joined the union board.

“I was punished for refusing to abandon the cause.”

Cardoso was one of the employees who actually ended up in Klein’s office. The persecution, Cardoso said, intensified after he declined, in front of Klein, a proposal to enroll in a professional development program to spend a year in Germany in exchange for “forgetting about this union matter.” He said, “I was punished for refusing to abandon the cause.”

A few months later, Cardoso was again summoned to the colonel’s office. This time, he was fired. Klein’s security unit accused Cardoso of authoring anonymous handwritten flyers agitating for labor actions. His lawyer asked for a handwriting analysis to determine whether the flyers had in fact been written by Cardoso and the result was conclusive: It was not Cardoso’s handwriting. “Someone within Fiat forged the flyers by copying his handwriting from official documents he had signed,” his lawyer, Santiago Lélis, said in an interview. “We won the case.” The court ordered Fiat to pay Cardoso damages, but his job wasn’t reinstated.

Other accounts of harassment and hostile work conditions were preserved for posterity thanks to the work of Michel Le Ven, a former priest. Le Ven, whose historical work focused on labor conditions during the military dictatorship in Brazil, collected anonymous accounts of individuals who worked for Fiat. “It’s a military system, with a hierarchy and everything, commanded by a colonel and a lieutenant,”one employee told Le Ven, as part of the priest’s doctoral research. “It’s totally repressive. When leaving the factory, workers are humiliatingly searched as if they are the worst kind of scum. If you protest, you are threatened and your employee number is noted by security.”

Le Ven, who was one of three French priests infamously imprisoned by the Brazilian dictatorship in 1968, lives in Minas Gerais and is in ill health. The Intercept Brasil obtained his unpublished doctoral thesis from his family.

Another anonymous Fiat Brazil employee described an interrogation room maintained by the Italians. “Fiat had a place to detain people inside the factory,” the worker told Le Ven. “Just like on the streets, they would approach someone, stop them, and say, ‘You’re under arrest.’ They would put them in their car and take them to the surveillance warehouse. When they arrived, there was the colonel. He was the executioner.”


ROTAM officers, members of an elite military police unit, at the entrance for the Minas Gerais factory in 1981.

Photo: Mana Coelho

Double Agents and Spotless Uniforms

Intelligence on the workers’ activities made its way to the Fiat security center in two ways: from double agents and from the infiltrators working for DOPS. Klein’s outfit recruited the double agents from among those workers who were suspected of subversion. Once they had been brought to the Fiat security room, the workers were promised a promotion or professional stability — as long as they betrayed their colleagues. The recruited workers would then be sent back out to the factory floor, pretending to be allied with trade unionists, all the while spying on them for Klein.

The most feared infiltrators were said to be easy to pick out of the crowd of workers: They wore spotless overalls — not even a single grease stain. It looked as if they had never worked a day on the machines in their lives. In many cases, they hadn’t. The DOPS agents in workers’ clothing had no friends; they did not fraternize with the regular employees — and there were a lot of them.

The infiltrators circulated throughout the company, gathering information from employees and at union meetings inside and outside of the factory. In the beginning, they went unnoticed. Little by little, however, the workers began to find them out. “They walked in pairs, wearing the green uniforms of the quality control team, which allowed them access to all areas of the factory,” said Antônio Luiz Vasco, who worked at Fiat from 1978 to 1982. “But the real members of the quality control team did not know who they were. And the fact that those uniforms were always spotless was weird.”

One day, Vasco and two other colleagues decided to out a group of infiltrators who were gathered at the door of the cafeteria. “We snuck up from behind them and shouted, ‘Attention!’” Vasco recalled in a phone interview. “And they immediately saluted. After that, they never again showed their face in the factory.” He let out a hearty laugh while recalling the incident.

Later, Vasco and José Onofre de Souza, a fellow worker, were sitting in the factory courtyard when they were called to “give a statement” in the security room. “It was a normal room, an office,” said Onofre. “They photographed us and took our statements, as if it were a police station.” Shortly thereafter, agents entered the factory and took Onofre away. “They took me to Lagoinha,” he said.

“We asked our bosses where he was, and they said that he had been caught stealing and had been fired. But everyone knew that was a lie.”

Lagoinha is a neighborhood in Betim where, beginning in the 1950s, Minas Gerais’s Department of Investigations — akin to a state-level version of the U.S.’s FBI — maintained an office with a jail. During the dictatorship, detainees were routinely jailed at facilities like the Lagoinha building for days without being charged. “They didn’t interrogate me, didn’t charge me,” Onofre recalled. “Didn’t do anything. They didn’t beat me, but they didn’t treat me well, either.”

With no news about her son during his illegal detention, Onofre’s mother went to the factory to find out if anyone had heard anything. “We asked our bosses where he was, and they said that he had been caught stealing and had been fired,” said Vasco. “But everyone knew that was a lie.”

Onofre got off lightly in the end — considering the fate met by many of the political disappeared under Brazil’s dictatorship. “I was there for two or three days,” he recalled. No records of the jail — let alone Onofre’s detention — exist.

Fiat also closely monitored worker meetings. The Intercept Brasil uncovered a document on company letterhead detailing Fiat’s surveillance of union activity. The report was found among microfilm records housed in the Minas Gerais public archives, among a batch of 97 microfilm rolls from the Office for General Security, the now-defunct division of the Minas Gerais state police, which received documents from the local DOPS unit.

The document includes a report of a closed meeting of workers held at a high school in the nearby state capital, Belo Horizonte. Among the approximately 50 attendees was a former Fiat employee identified in the document as Enilton Simões. “The presence of the former Fiat employee was well received by the meeting leaders, who immediately nominated him to be a member of the committee they had formed,” the document says.

The surveillance record dated April 19, 1979, details Simões’s remarks to the group. At one point, he asked if any Fiat employees present could explain how the military police operated within the factory. The document says, “Speaking on behalf of the trade union of Betim, he said the following: ‘Is there any representative of the Fiat workers who will come forward to report on how employees are treated by police within the factory?’”


Fiat workers on an assembly line at the Minas Gerais factory around 1987.

Photo: Mana Coelho

The Turin-Betim Connection

Brazil’s military dictatorship helped Fiat come to the South American country. The Minas Gerais government put up $71.4 million and Fiat invested $71.5 million. Though lacking a majority interest, the state government chose the company’s president in Betim, according to an agreement between the Minas Gerais government and Fiat. Fiat, for its part, decided who would hold the positions of vice president and superintendent.

On the day the agreement was signed, Giovanni Agnelli, the president of Fiat Worldwide, held a news conference in which he said that he had chosen Brazil for “the social and political tranquility in the country at the moment.” For Fiat, the military coup of 1964 was a “revolution.” A Fiat country assessment, dated July 25, 1974, warned that social inequality in the country might serve to tamp down the Brazilian economy, but suggested economic growth might continue if there were no violent political upheaval.

Around then, in the early 1970s, Raffaele Guariniello, the former prosecutor in Turin, discovered that Fiat had spied on its Italian employees and even on potential hires. It was Guariniello who found the filing cabinets, with 354,077 personnel records, at Fiat’s former headquarters in Turin. “The strategy of espionage, bribes, and collaboration involving police officers, judges, and former military personnel had been devised by a former military man, who Agnelli trusted, that worked for the Italian secret service,” said Guariniello, in hushed tones, during an interview at Rome’s Senate library.

Guariniello marshaled his evidence into corruption charges against five top Fiat executives. But Agnelli was never among those charged.

In an attempt to squash the case, lawyers for Fiat managed to have it transferred to Naples, in southern Italy. There, in thick mafia territory, cases could be more easily “fixed” for the rich and powerful. Yet for many Fiat officials, no easy fix came. One by one, a series of the company’s employees were prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced, though none was imprisoned, because the statute of limitations had expired.

Once the legal cases were done, the Italian archives, where the case files had been kept, requested that Fiat take back the 150,000 files — half of the total collection. The archive office in the federal courthouse in Naples said the court simply didn’t have space to store all the documents. It’s unclear where all of those files are now. The Intercept Brasil examined what is left of the case files in Naples. There, we found some files that were left behind by Fiat among the documents.

The papers hint at the extent to which Fiat spied on its own employees. Described as “informative notations,” the records showed employees’ marital status, socio-economic status, criminal records, histories of political activities, political leanings, and public reputations — including those of family members directly linked to the respondents. One of the files found was that of Salvatore B. It described him as “single, apolitical, rents a modest apartment with his sister, who is also single, a worker, and apolitical, with good moral and civic conduct.” Salvatore was considered “suitable” to work at the factory in Turin.

Carlo C., on the other hand, was deemed “subversive,” despite having no police record and exhibiting good moral and civic conduct. The research into Carlo’s life was extensive. It was his past affiliation with the Italian Communist Party that raised red flags for Fiat security officials. The company spies produced a two-page report covering Carlo’s life from his college years until he joined the Communist Party — even including his church attendance. Their report also describes his father’s participation in the Italian centrist Christian Democracy party, as well as the fact that his mother and sister were both members of the faith-based activist group Catholic Action.

The files on the workers sometimes reflected the chauvinistic Italian culture of the time. For instance, the investigators gave a harsh assessment of a woman referred to as Angela O. Spies working for Fiat collected information on every aspect of her life. They noted that she had been twice evicted from her home for nonpayment of rent and that she currently lived in a small apartment with her mother and two children, one of whom had a serious health problem. Their report went on to say that “the person in question (Angela) has been in a relationship with a bankrupt, ex-con type for over a year and leaves much to desire on the moral front, because the children are from a different father and she previously had a relationship with a German citizen sought by Interpol.”

The report detailed several key moments in Angela’s life. “She worked as a cashier and, for a period of time, was seen roaming around the streets of Milan for unknown reasons,” the Fiat spies wrote. “She has not worked for a long time and leads a dubious life, arriving home late every night.” At that point, the researchers had already drawn their conclusions: “We suspect that she is a prostitute.”

It’s unclear if the scope of Fiat’s spying on workers in Brazil ever matched that of its investigations into Italian workers. No in-depth personnel files on large numbers of employees have surfaced. If the Italian spying did have a parallel in South America, perhaps the files were burned — the fate of many documents during the process of “turning out the lights” in the waning days of the military dictatorship in Brazil. When asked for a statement, the company responded that it has no records of events during that period.

Join The Conversation