In Chevron RICO Suit Against Amazonians, Who’s The Real Gangster?

By Adrian Ran

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle’s City Brights blog.

Have you ever seen the movies Erin Brokovich or The Rainmaker? Basic plotline: evil company dumps poison into town’s drinking water, for years people get sick while the company denies any wrongdoing, but then someone decides it’s time to fight back. The big company has a band of lawyers and dirty tricks up its sleeve. But, in the end, the community wins. The underdog town prevails and restores our belief that bullies, even the rich and powerful, don’t win in the end.

Let’s hope the upcoming verdict in a landmark case against Chevron — brought by an Ecuadorean community in the Amazon for decades of drinking water contamination — has the same victorious end. Unfortunately, right now all I see is a big, rich company and a lot of dirty legal tricks.

This week, Chevron slapped the Ecuadorean community and their lawyers with a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit. Congress enacted the RICO Act in 1970 in an effort to rein in the Mafia. That’s right — Chevron is accusing a remote rainforest community in the Amazon of racketeering.

Chevron's Toxic Legacy in the Ecuadorean Amazon
Ines Suarez, 33, and her daughter Angie Christina Castillo Suarez, 2, outside their home near San Carlos, Ecuador. Angie and her family suffer severe health problems from drinking water contaminated by the oil waste that was dumped into local watercourses when Texaco (now Chevron) drilled for oil in the area. Photo by Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network. View more images of Chevron’s Toxic Legacy in the Ecuadorean Rainforest.

Quick straw poll: between the multi-billion dollar oil company and the Indigenous rainforest community in Ecuador, who do you think has more in common with a gangster? The company’s attempts to deflect attention from the overwhelming evidence of its guilt in polluting the Ecuadorean Amazon is looking as desperate as a Mafia Boss running from tax evasion.

As the New York Times put it:

Chevron Corp.’s racketeering suit…is likely part of a wider strategy aimed at helping the oil giant reach a more favorable settlement, according to legal experts. A judge in Ecuador is close to issuing a decision in the long-running case there, and Chevron is becoming ever more desperate to undermine the plaintiffs in U.S. courts. The company could face billions of dollars in damages, potentially making the case the biggest environmental verdict of all time.

Chevron is facing a multi-billion dollar lawsuit in Ecuador after failing to properly clean up billions of gallons of toxic oil waste the company dumped in the Amazon. The lawsuit has been ongoing for eighteen years, and during that time many have died from toxic exposure. What is at stake for the people in Ecuador is the cleanup and remediation of a fragile eco-system that the community depends on for their basic survival. What’s at stake is justice.

For Chevron the stakes include the billions of dollars in assessed damages, the company’s self-ascribed do-gooder reputation, and a precedent for how corporations are held accountable for environmental and human rights crimes. The precedent this case will set for corporate accountability explains why it is the environmental lawsuit that scholars, advocates and the industry are closely watching. With so much on the line for Chevron, the company is ramping up its efforts to absolve itself of any liability, including prosecuting the very victims its actions have harmed.

Ultimately, Chevron’s executives and lawyers have shown that they are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid responsibility for cleaning up the oily mess left in the Amazon, a mess that is making people seriously sick. The RICO suit is the latest in a growing list of corporate bullying efforts aimed at discrediting the case and the affected communities. Chevron’s aim: to shroud the case with enough suspicion and controversy that, should the court rule in favor of the Amazonian communities, a guilty judgment would be difficult to enforce in the U.S. or other countries where Chevron has assets. Basically, even if the company is found guilty, which its recent behavior seems to indicate is likely, the oil giant has positioned itself to avoid paying a cent.

So, who’s the real gangster here? The Chevron Godfathers with their team of fancy legal consiglieres and PR wise guys, engaged in a whole host of cons and intimidation tactics? Or the Ecuadorean plaintiffs, who are largely poor, forest villagers who have literally seen their families and neighbors poisoned?

It’s hopeful to remember that the movie Erin Brokovich was based on a real person and a real story. Dirty companies making people sick is not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Luckily, neither is justice.