Gunvor’s dirty hands in the Amazon
Zurich, Lausanne, 7 June 2021
Public Eye traced Gunvor’s tracks in Ecuador, where the oil trader found itself at the heart of a vast bribery scandal, just 18 months after it was convicted by the Swiss judiciary for corruption in Congo-Brazzaville and Côte d’Ivoire. An ex-employee is accused by the US Department of Justice of having paid over USD 70 million in commissions from 2012 to 2020 to two intermediaries, of which USD 22 million allegedly went into the pockets of Ecuadorian officials in exchange for contracts that were favourable to Gunvor, as revealed by Bloomberg. But this story is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our investigation sets out how Gunvor became a key player in Amazonian crude oil, without winning a single tender. It took advantage of the financial crisis faced by Rafael Correa’s government and, with the support of Swiss banks, pushed Ecuador to become heavily indebted to Asian state-owned entities, including Petrochina. According to the US criminal complaint, "the trading company helped to guarantee the financing of approximately USD 5.4 billion of loans guaranteed by crude oil."
We obtained a copy of the 2009 contract between the national oil company Petroecuador and Petrochina, under which a loan of USD one billion is to be reimbursed in crude oil over a period of 24 months at an interest rate of 7.25%. Contracts of this nature were concluded 16 times. As a result, Ecuador fell into a vicious circle of indebtedness. For the past six years, the majority of the country’s oil production has served to reimburse its loans. The wells operated by Texaco/Chevron since 1972 are starting to run dry, and as a result the country has been forced to drill ever deeper in the Amazon, to the detriment of its population and the environment.
Gunvor benefitted greatly from these prefinancing agreements. At the end of the chain, it is the Geneva-based trader and satellite companies that cashed in the barrels and sold them to refineries in the United States and South America, where prices are far higher than those fixed in the agreements. According to an Ecuadorian investigative journalist, the loss of income to the his state would amount to USD 4 billion. The price of a barrel in the prefinancing contracts has never been renegotiated, despite an alarming audit report on the finances of the Ecuadorian state as early as 2010.
Documents in our possession describe a well-functioning distribution mechanism for commissions between intermediaries. From 2013 onwards, Gunvor made payments of huge commissions from Singapore. Millions allegedly landed in bank accounts in Switzerland, Panama and the Cayman Islands; part of these funds were subsequently transferred to Ecuadorian officials. According to its ex-employee, who pleaded guilty, some of Gunvor’s leadership "were aware of the bribery schemes". This scandal shows, once again, that this high-risk sector needs to be regulated by setting up due diligence requirements for traders and a dedicated oversight authority.
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