[Amazonia, Ecuador, 2009] Ricardo and I were dumped off at the end of a jeep track on a riverbank in a downpour to wait for our riverboat, which I assumed would be something like the steamer Humphrey Bogart piloted down the Ulanga River in The African Queen. The day before, I had received a message that the Cofan Natives of the Amazon forest would have a boat waiting to take us across an Amazon tributary to their village.
Our driver pointed to a canoe, a dug-out log with a hand-carved paddle, deep in mud, tied to a tree. “Su barco.” “Your boat,” he said.
Rick remained calm — I hate that in him — as we sank in the muck to untie it. I did my clown-on-a-tight-rope walk to the back of the canoe. I made it, but Rick’s $500 microphone didn’t: I’d dumped it in the gray rushing river. Rick remained calm.
And I kept thinking, Anderson Cooper wouldn’t do this. How could they get his makeup guy into the canoe?
We got lucky. A Cofan came out of the forest, and having mercy on these dumb-ass white guys, untied the log canoe and paddled off alone into the rapids to the village, returning half an hour later in another, longer canoe, this one with a little outboard motor.
I was on the hunt for Emergildo Criollo, a con man, a trickster, perpetrator of “the biggest fraud in history.” That’s how a Chevron Oil Corporation lawyer described him to me.
As a fraud investigator, I couldn’t resist meeting this master flimflam artist, the Chief of the Cofan Indians. Even in the twenty-first century, that’s not so easy. The Cofan are way the hell in the middle of Ecuador’s rain forest.
Once again on land, or on mud, we were led through the dripping trees and vines to a couple dozen homes on low stilts. I just kind of barged in on a few folks. In one stilt house, a man about my age was making a necklace of seedpods, which he gave to me. Didn’t catch the name, not that I could pronounce it anyway.
How the hell do you live out here? “Yucca, corn, little animals we hunt,” he said in Spanish. A lot of villagers speak Spanish, not just their odd tongue. He said, “In the old days, we hunted with blowpipes.” He nodded to the one that hung on his wall. But now, he said, they use shotguns. He laughed and smiled, maybe because he knew what we knew, that the shotguns had been used by some Cofan on the oil drillers. Nothing fatal, just educational.
Inviting ourselves to join in their communal meal of yucca and chicken, we got in line with the village elders and a couple of curious monkeys. Until a few years ago, they were on the menu.
Then the Chief appeared, Criollo, the big-time fraudster, wearing the same ragged farmer’s clothes as everyone else.
I said, “Señor, we need to talk. Alone.” We walked to the big chief’s house. It looked a lot like everyone else’s. Something’s missing. Everything’s missing. Maybe it’s the perfect con.
The Chief has claimed for years that his people were getting sick, dying from Chevron’s oil. Chevron tagged Criollo as a shakedown artist. The Natives may be “primitive,” but even cavemen know oil companies have deep pockets.
I got down to it: Anyone die out here?
He introduced me to a wrinkled woman, tiny as a mouse, Cecilia Q’nama. She spoke only Cofan, and the Chief translated. She told me about relatives of hers getting strange diseases. Miscarriages, deformed kids, dead kids, only since the drilling started.
Maybe it was bullshit. Maybe she was in on the shakedown with Chief Criollo. I had an epidemiologists’ report back at my hotel. It said there was a sudden epidemic of childhood leukemia in the oil-production zone. Maybe the epidemiologists were in on the con too. The oil company said so.
Around us were puddles and rain forest sinkholes, with that telltale rainbow of oil sheen, drilling residue pumped and dumped in holding pools left to drain into the water. The miles of slithering contamination here in the Amazon made the Gulf Coast look like Kew Gardens.
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I ended up out here in the rain forest half by accident. I had some confidential papers from the World Bank I intended to give to Ecuador’s President Correa. But, going through the confidential documents, it was clear that there was no way to understand Ecuador, which had just rejoined OPEC, without first following the oil. And following the oil back to ChevronTexaco (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001) meant going into the oil fields in the jungle and grilling the Natives about their claims of illnesses and deaths.
Maybe it was all a hoax concocted by Indians and greedy lawyers. Don’t kid yourself, such things happen. I had to look for myself.
Criollo gave us a lift in another motorized log out to some farmland. Or, more accurately, tar land. At one little farm, the oil residues were squooshing up under the house. Everywhere we walked. Flupth. Flupth. The farmer Manuel Salinas, his wife, and his kids were covered with these suppurating pustules.
But they couldn’t leave. There was nowhere to go, and no money to go there.
Why the hell was everyone out here so raggedy-ass busted?
I asked Criollo about the Cofan’s deal with Texaco, three decades ago.
“They came in helicopters. They gave us cheese and diesel fuel and knives. The cheese smelled funny, so we threw it in the jungle.”
I asked the Chief if the men from the oil company explained that they were taking the Native’s oil.
“We couldn’t understand. They were talking in Spanish.” At the time, Cofan spoke only Cofan. It was 1973, the same year BP and partners, nine thousand miles north, got the rights to Valdez from the Chugach Natives. Whatever, the Cofan got the cheese and Texaco got the oil.
Four billion barrels of it.
After they sucked up the crude, Chevron’s Texaco unit bugged out, leaving no assets in Ecuador. Not even a rubber band, not a thank-you note. Very smart, very clever. If a court ever came down on the oil company, Chevron could stick out its tongue and say, “Nyah Nyah Nyah,” because there would be nothing in the country to impound to pay for any judgment, medical care, or clean-up.
Of course, this farm family, this Salinas guy, might have been in on the con with the Chief and the epidemiologists.. Despite Chevron’s claim it was all a gigantic fraud, I just could not bring myself to scrape off one of Salinas’s pus-filled scabs to see if they were real or just the Halloween stuff used when white guys came around with a camera.
The Cofan knew that to survive in the jungle, you needed lawyers. One young local farmer, Pablo Fajardo, apprenticed himself to an oil-town lawyer and got a certificate just so he could file a suit. Joining up with the Cofan, the farmers sued Texaco over the dead kids and the skin pustules.
The day after we arrived in the Amazon, Ricardo and I followed Chief Criollo into town, where he announced he would file a renewed claim against Chevron. This was serious stuff. Instead of his saggy farming clothes, the chief was decked out in ritual scarves and a kind of cape. He had painted his face with war stripes and led a small band from his village by boat, then by jeep, then by foot to the roustabout town of Lago Agrio (“sour lake”). The place looks like a movie set from an old Western.
In this nowhere town in the middle of the jungle, we followed the Chief as he marched to the courthouse, then up the steps, always looking straight ahead, not acknowledging the smirks of bureaucrats. On the top floor, with a slow, regal motion, he handed a clerk his latest demand in his $27 billion claim against Chevron.
With the feathers and war paint, it could have been a Peter Sellers comedy, except no one was laughing. The look in the Chief’s eyes was as determined and regal as I could imagine of Henry V before the battlefield of Agincourt. Here was no Mardi Gras King, no voodoo impostor. The Mask of Tears was his own countenance.
But in the end, this was the jungle and he was guy with paint on his face, dropping off a petition typed for him by a farmer lawyer to tell a multinational oil company to write a check for several billion dollars. Good luck.
In my experience, I find that flimflam artists can’t stop themselves from grinning. Criollo didn’t grin. Maybe the Chief was just better at it than most. Criollo’s eyes were stern but deeply sad.
I still had a job to do. I asked him, Did he himself have any experience with the oil poisonings or was this just secondhand stuff he was peddling?
“My three-year-old went swimming,” he started in Spanish, “and began to vomit blood.” The kid died quickly. His other son died slowly, of cancer.
Quito, the Capital
“And it’s the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have in the States?”
Texaco’s lawyer, Rodrigo Perez, was chuckling and snorting.
“Scientifically, nobody has proved that crude causes cancer.”
OK, then. But what about the epidemiological study about children with cancer in the Amazon traced to hydrocarbons?
The parents of the dead kids, he said, would have some big hurdles in court:
“If there is somebody with cancer there, they must prove it is caused by crude or by the petroleum industry. And, second, they have to prove that it is OUR crude.”
Perez leaned over with a huge grin.
“Which is absolutely impossible.”
He grinned even harder.
Maybe some guy eating monkeys in the jungle can’t prove it. And maybe that’s because the evidence of oil dumping was destroyed.
Deliberately, by Chevron.
I passed the ChevronTexaco legal duo a document from their files labeled “Personal y confidential.”
They read in silence. They stayed silent quite a while.
Jaime Varela, Chevron’s lawyer, was wearing his tan golf pants and white shoes, an open shirt and bespoke blue blazer. He had a blow-dried bouffant hairdo much favored by the ruling elite of Latin America and skin whiter than mine, a color also favored by the elite.
Jaime had been grinning too. He read the memo. He stopped grinning.
The key part says:
“…Reports… are to be removed from the division and field offices and be destroyed.”
It came from the company boss in the States, “R.C. Shields, Presidente de la Junta.”
Removed and destroyed. That smells an awful lot like an order to destroy evidence, which in this case means evidence of abandoned pits of deadly drilling residue. Destroying evidence that is part of a court action constitutes fraud.
In the United States, that would be a crime, a jail-time crime. OK, gents, you want to tell me about this document?
“Can we have a copy of this?” Varela asked me, pretending he’d never seen it before in his life.
I’ll pretend with them, if that gets me information. “Sure. You’ve never seen this?”
The ritual of innocence continued as they asked a secretary to make copies. “We’re sure there’s an explanation,” Varela said. I’m sure there is. “We’ll get back to you as soon as we find out what it is.”
They never did.
This is an excerpt from Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Fraudsters.
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