Gunvor in Ecuador: The "how to" guide on corruption in the oil market

Based on new documents, Public Eye’s new investigation shows how Gunvor set up a sophisticated corruption scheme to get its hands on Ecuadorian crude oil. A ploy that allowed it to bank $384 million in illicit profits over a decade. The Geneva-based trading house was condemned on 1st March by the US and Swiss courts, but none of its senior executives has so far been investigated, to our knowledge. Even though one of them made direct approaches to Petroecuador to facilitate oil contracts.

Oil, violence, and corruption. This is the climate in Ecuador that Gunvor has been operating in for a decade. Stifled by a lack of capital, having vowed not to have anything to do with any oil multinationals, Ecuador, led by Rafael Correa, turned in 2009 to Asian state-owned companies to obtain sizeable loans, to be repaid by means of future crude deliveries. However, these contracts were in fact arranged by Gunvor – as well as by the Geneva-based traders Vitol and Trafigura – which was therefore able to get its hands on the oil without going through tender procedures and pocket a handsome capital gain on reselling it in Peruvian or US refineries. Precisely the scenario that the country wanted to avoid.

"How Gunvor initiated a decade of corruption" reads like an instruction for unscrupulous oil companies. Based on unpublished documents obtained, we show how senior officials at Petroecuador chatted openly about the illicit commission payments from Gunvor distributed by two Ecuadorian-Spanish brothers. These middlemen, who pleaded guilty in the United States, received more than $91 million from Gunvor for their services between 2013 and 2020. While juggling offshore companies and bank accounts in several countries, including an account at UBS Zurich, they bribed a senior Petroecuador executive, who received nearly $7.5 million, some of which came from Switzerland, according to the summary penalty order we have seen. Gunvor’s compliance department ignored the red flags until May 2020, when the business relationship was terminated.

Our investigation reveals that a senior Gunvor executive approached the national company Petroecuador to recommend that it work with PTT International Trading. However, as part of the plea agreement reached with the US and Swiss courts on 1st March 2024, this small Singaporean company was identified as a front used by the trader to bypass tender procedures and therefore facilitate corruption. When asked by Public Eye, Gunvor pointed out that "the Department of Justice has never stated that [this senior executive] was or ever has been a target of its investigation" and "that none of the individuals mentioned by the US judicial authorities currently works for Gunvor."

The case of Ecuador is symbolic of the resource curse. The pre-financing contracts and the dominance of Gunvor have been disastrous for the country. To enable the country to repay its $18.47 billion in loans between 2009 and 2016, successive governments have been forced to drill deep in the Amazon in search of crude, to the detriment of the Ecuadorian population.

For more information, please contact:

Adrià Budry Carbó, Commodities Investigator, +41 78 738 64 48, 
Oliver Classen, Media Director, +41 44 277 79 06,