Last February I got an offer from Kroll1), one of the world’s largest private investigation firms, to go undercover2) as a journalist-spy in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The call came while I was sitting in a parking lot, trying not to cry over the spare tire that had mysteriously gone missing from my rented baby blue Atos. The E-Z Rent-a-Car agent said the replacement would cost $200. I knew the magazine I was on assignment for could never afford such a fee, meaning I would barely break even3) on the story.
But just then my cell phone rang. It was a private-investigator friend calling about a “research” job in the jungle. I would have to go to Ecuador to work with a group that does espionage for Fortune 500 companies. Was I interested? “I’m sure you could use the money,” he said, bluntly.
A week later, I was on a plane to Colombia. The Kroll recruiter my friend put me in touch with didn’t seem eager to talk over the phone. He invited me to join him for a long weekend at a luxury hotel in Bogotá.
I arrived after dark at the hotel located on a quiet street in a modern, glassed-in building. I hadn’t heard from Sam, my Kroll contact, in days. But not knowing where or when I would meet him only heightened the intrigue. Who were these shadowy people and what was this job that couldn’t be discussed over the phone?
I needn’t have worried. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist slid a note over the front desk with a number for Sam. A bellboy who took me to my room to rest for a few minutes gave me a purple flower and offered me a glass of red wine. By then I was imagining Sam as the Hollywood amalgam4) of a spy—dashing, dangerous, rugged5) yet refined. But when the elevator doors opened into the lobby, the man I saw just looked like a guy from L.A. in a black shirt and jeans.
That night, we drank tequila6), smoked cigarettes, and went salsa7) dancing, and Sam confessed that before moving to Kroll full-time, he had worked as a researcher for Larry Flynt8) on a pre-election campaign to take down George W. Bush. “After that, I couldn’t work in journalism anymore,” he said. The thought didn’t seem to pain him, I noticed. Sam was going gray9), and carried himself with the ease that comes with professional achievement. He had obviously grown used to the comforts of Kroll’s upper management. And the message seemed to be that these were comforts I could grow used to as well.
The next morning, we met in a large suite at the hotel. Over several hours, Sam explained my assignment, should I choose to accept it.
In Lago Agrio, Ecuador, he told me, one of the biggest environmental lawsuits in history is being fought out in a jungle court. A group of citizens represented by American trial attorneys and an NGO called the Amazon Defense Coalition10) are suing Texaco11) on the grounds that the company polluted routinely and wantonly during the 20-odd years it operated there. The plaintiffs claim that Texaco dumped 330 million gallons of oil around Lago Agrio, poisoning their water supply and sickening them with cancers and other diseases.
In Texaco’s defense, however, Sam explained that it’s not entirely obvious who should be responsible for the damage. Texaco built and operated the wells at the center of the dispute back in the early 1970s. But the state-run oil company, PetroEcuador, has owned a 62.5 percent share in the wells since 1977. For that reason, when it came to cleaning up the sludge12), the government assigned just 133 of the 321 sites to Texaco; PetroEcuador took responsibility for the rest. Texaco spent $40 million in its cleanup efforts, and when the work was done, analysts from a Quito university came to collect oil and water samples. By 1998, all of Texaco’s sites had been approved, and the Ecuadorian government signed a full release.
By then, the first lawsuit was already being argued in U.S. courts. That suit, filed in New York in 1993, was eventually dismissed, but it paved the way for the current suit, filed in Ecuador in 2003. This time, Chevron13) is the defendant—the California-based oil company purchased Texaco in 2001. Chevron rests its defense on three pillars: Chevron itself never operated in Ecuador; the Ecuadorian government already released Texaco from these claims; and, finally, the plaintiffs have committed fraud.
Until fairly recently, it seemed that Chevron would prevail. But starting in 2006, a series of dramatic changes took place. Rafael Correa14) won the presidency. In an interview, he said, “ Our oil company [PetroEcuador] has also done a lot of damage in the rainforest, but it is very clear that the problem comes from the Chevron-Texaco period.”
The case truly began slipping away from Chevron when the Ecuadorian court assigned a single independent expert to assess the environmental damages. The expert settled on a $27.3 billion figure that Chevron alone would be held responsible for covering. A judgment could come as early as the first quarter of 2011, and at this stage, many believe Chevron will lose.
Sam explained that once the company realized it was losing the PR battle, it regrouped and hired Kroll. Based in New York, Kroll has a global network of employees, vast resources, and powerful connections. Given this reach15), I knew Kroll could hire someone with a medical background, legal training, or at least some familiarity with Ecuador. But there was a reason they wanted me.
With one Google search, anyone could see that I was a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed16) young American poking around was actually shilling17) for Chevron.
My assigment, should I choose to accept it, involved a health study that took place around 2007, when a Spanish human-rights activist named Carlos Beristain went to Lago Agrio. After interviewing 1,000 residents, Beristain concluded that the community suffered abnormally high cancer rates, and his study became a key part of the court-appointed expert’s report. But Chevron thought something was fishy18): Beristain had failed to disclose the names of all his assistants or of the people interviewed. To Chevron, the names were key to proving that the interviews were real. Was it possible that the plaintiffs had colluded with Beristain to handpick the interviewees? Kroll wanted me to find out.
“You know you’re irreplaceable,” Sam told me on my last night in Bogotá. We were sitting outside a fancy Peruvian restaurant. The smoke from Sam’s cigarette curled in the lamplight, giving the moment a film-noir19) feel. But by then the excitement had mostly worn off20), and I wasn’t sure I could do this and live with21) myself. “There is no other Mary Cuddehe,” Sam continued. “If you don’t do this job, we’ll have to find another way.” Then he told me how much he could pay: $20,000 for about six weeks of work. Plus expenses.
Part of me wanted to say yes. I was thrilled by the idea of a six-week paid adventure in the jungle, and I was curious about the case. Had the health study been fixed? Were the plaintiffs colluding with Beristain? Was Chevron desperate and paranoid22), merely trying to smear23) its opponents? Despite my curiosity, I knew I had to say no. If I’m ever going to answer those questions, it will have to be in my role as a journalist, not as a corporate spy.
2. undercover [7QndE5kQvE] adj. 秘密从事的,秘密的,被雇进行间谍活动的
3. break even:收支相抵,得失相当
4. amalgam [E5mAl^Em] n. 混合物,不同元素的结合
5. rugged [5rQ^Id] adj. 粗壮的,身体强健的
6. tequila [tE5ki:lE] n. 龙舌兰酒
8. Larry Flynt:拉里·弗林特(1942~),美国出版商,以创办色情杂志、信奉极端自由主义而闻名。
9. go gray:(头发)变得灰白
10. Amazon Defense Coalition:亚马逊河防卫联盟。这是一个于1994年创立的非政府组织,主要关注厄瓜多尔亚马逊地区的环境和公众权利问题。
12. sludge [slQdV] n. 烂泥,污泥
14. Rafael Correa:拉斐尔·科雷亚(1963~),2006年11月首次当选为厄瓜多尔总统,并于2009年4月再次当选为总统。
15. reach [ri:tF] n. 影响力
17. shill [FIl] vi. 充当雇用骗子
18. fishy [5fIFI] adj. 怀疑的或引起猜疑的
19. film-noir [5fIlm5nwB:(r)] adj.〈法〉具有悲观(或宿命论)色彩的影片的,黑色电影的
20. wear off:逐渐减弱,消失
21. live with:忍受(不愉快的事)
22. paranoid [5pArEnCId] adj. 多疑的
23. smear [smIE] vt. 涂污,诽谤