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 amalgam of a spy--dashing, dangerous, rugged
yet refined, as effortless in a board meeting as in a bar fight. 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.
Which is more or
less what Sam was. A formerly broke freelance writer, he had risen through the
alternative-weekly ranks reporting on race and hip-hop. That night, we drank
tequila, smoked cigarettes, and went salsa dancing, and Sam confessed that
before moving to Kroll full-time, he had worked as a researcher for Larry Flint
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 gray, looked to be in his mid-40s, 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. Just like my smaller room, it was cozy and low-lit
and featured a stocked kitchenette, a plush white bed, a flat-screen TV, and expensive
French bath products. 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 Coalition are suing Texaco on the grounds that the company polluted
routinely and wantonly during the 20-odd years it operated there.
In Crude, a documentary about the case that Sam played for me, footage
shows residents living in shacks that surround sludge pools, bathing in filthy
streams, and seeking relief at clinics for terrible skin rashes. While the
documentary comes across as a pretty slanted and shoddy piece of filmmaking, it
was impossible not to feel depressed watching it on my shiny MacBook Pro in the
comfort of a ritzy hotel. According to Karen Hines, a representative for the plaintiffs, Texaco dumped 330 million
gallons of oil--far more than the BP spill--around Lago Agrio, poisoning their
water supply and sickening them with cancers and other diseases.