LAGO AGRIO, Ecuador—Hitler was behind the wheel, racing through a blur of jungle toward Ecuador’s border with Colombia. Only when an immigration officer in green fatigues hurried out from a checkpoint, yelling, did Hitler pump the brakes. The policeman asked if we wanted our passports stamped, and all four of us in the truck—an American, a Dane, a Colombian, and an Ecuadorian—declined. With that, the official waved goodbye and we lurched onward to Colombia.
The river that marks the border between the countries is anything but an impassable boundary. Along its length are dozens of illicit crossings, and the movement of people—and problems—from one bank to the other is a fact of daily life. From a bridge, I could see, on the Colombian side, a black plume of smoke rising from an oil pipeline that FARC rebels had reportedly bombed the previous day. On the Ecuadorian side was a ghost town of ramshackle sheds that those same guerrillas were known to rent for a few hours of partying.
Like the nearby Andes, this stretch of the Amazon has long been a location where reality does not correspond to political geography. When Hitler, a driver by trade and one of 12 sons named (apparently at random) after leaders from the Bible and world history, moved to the nearby city of Lago Agrio as a child, his father knew the area as a place where the authorities sent convicts from the country’s overcrowded jails to be released downriver into the jungle. In the 1950s, missionaries had come to ‘civilize’ Indians who had long lived in the region, and the oilmen followed soon after. As William Langewiesche wrote in Vanity Fair, Ecuador’s government at the time was “an incompetent military regime in a corrupt country so dysfunctional that in the Amazon it existed purely as fiction—a cartographic boast without viable airports or roads, enclosed by unmarked boundaries that were in dispute, where the indigenous people were not even recognized as full citizens.”