3Shell Oil Owns Nigeria
Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
Over 63 percent of the world's oil is produced by 10 lucky countries, which helps explain why oil tycoons tend to clock in somewhere between drug dealers and Donald Trump on the spectrum of tackiest per capita displays of wealth. The top 10 countries are a mixture of famously oil-rich Middle Eastern nations (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait), countries that possess lots of land and the technology to drill it (Canada, the U.S., and Russia), and countries that clearly landed on this list by way of clerical error, like Nigeria.
Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images
A nation that we just now learned exists outside of our inbox.
Shockingly, that's not a mistake. The capital of petty email fraud is extremely rich in oil. But before you start responding to those wealthy Nigerian princes stowed away in the "Look into?" email folder, it turns out very little of that money ever found its way to the people of Nigeria. During the oil discovery process, somewhere between the part where "a bubbling crude" comes up through the ground and the part where the narrator helpfully clarifies "Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea," the people of Nigeria turned around to find the Royal Dutch Shell Company balls deep in their oil deposits. They started pumping oil out of the country in the 1930s and haven't stopped since. For most of the century, the people of Nigeria were pretty good sports about the whole thing, but sometime in the 1990s they turned into major nags. Suddenly, everyone was all "Stop bulldozing our villages to install pipelines" and "The constant oil spills are killing our fish and vegetation."
Pius Utomi Ekpei / Getty
"I'm not sure, but it seems like there was less poison everywhere when I was a kid."
Everyone, including Shell, seemed to acknowledge that they weren't exactly helping the local ecosystem, but pretty soon the Nigerian accusations had escalated to human rights abuses with a dash of crazy conspiracy theory. For instance, when the military tortured and executed nine environmental activists in 1995, they claimed that it was Shell pulling strings. The things Shell got accused of doing in Nigeria were so aggressively evil, and would have required them to be secretly in control of so many decisions in the country, that it became hard to take their accusers seriously.
Like any bitter divorce, there was an emotionally and judicially unsatisfying out-of-court cash settlement between Shell and the families of the slain protesters in 2009. Shell claimed that it was worth more than $15 million to not be associated with such heinous accusations, and that seemed to be where it would end.
Bebeto Matthews / AP
"Our punishing mustache-twirling schedule doesn't leave time for that sort of hands-on evil."
That's when the terrifying truth started to leak and then WikiLeak out for everyone to see. First, in 2009, internal memos surfaced that would have been used in the trial that Shell had paid $15 million not to have, which seemed to indicate that they had, in fact, paid the military to use force on the protesters, and just generally behave in a way that would make even the most paranoid crazy person drop the shit they were about to fling at the wall, and say, "Wait, really?"
The WikiLeaks documents that came torrenting onto the Web in 2010 contained more bad news for Shell, and also for people who value subtlety in their evil corporations. In one correspondence, Shell's head of Nigerian operations bragged to the U.S. government that the company had infiltrated pretty much every relevant ministry of Nigeria's government and was secretly calling the (occasionally very literal) shots from behind the scenes, just like the crazy accusations claimed.
Council on Foreign Relations
"I hear these guys sell pretty good taquitos over in the U.S."
Like a movie villain outlining her evil plan for global domination, she bragged that Shell "knew 'everything that was being done in those ministries'" and "boasted that the Nigerian government had 'forgotten' about the extent of Shell's infiltration and was unaware of how much the company knew about its deliberations," before lifting one of the Nigerians she'd turned into tiny shrimp and popping it into her mouth.
In better news for Shell, the documents were so damning that legal scholars think they must have access to some manner of wish-granting genie to have convinced the prosecution to settle for $15 million. And those come in handy when you're a Fortune 500 company that's about to get your balls sued clean out from under you.
2American Express Acts as Benefactor to an Ocean's Eleven-Style Heist That Nearly Topples the Stock Market
As we've seen throughout this article, big business often operates on logic that's closer to street justice than the kind practiced in the courtroom. For instance, vouching for the wrong guy can't get you put in jail, but it often comes with a death penalty on the streets and in the boardroom.
"If this deal falls through, you'll be leveraging your synergy through a straw."
Criminals can't look up the credit rating of a potential drug mule or the success rate of a prospective getaway driver. So when it comes to evaluating the quantity and quality of a shit that a potential partner is worth, they have to rely on the complex math of street cred. (Who vouches for you? Who vouches for the guy vouching for you? Wait, didn't they hear that YOU TURNED SISSY IN THE JOINT? Ha, the sissy thing was a test, and you passed. Now you just have to kill a guy and you've got a street credit rating of 740, which is pretty good.) It may not be a perfect science, but the point is, criminals know better than to just assume someone is trustworthy because they say they are.
There are of course more official, less convoluted ways to determine a company's Wall Street cred in the world of business, but the cost of backing the wrong guy can be just as deadly. Therefore, you'd think that the background checks run by major corporations would be at least as thorough as the ones used by mobsters. Especially credit card companies, who have the "cred" part right there in their job description. Unfortunately for anyone holding American Express stock in the 1960s, the process for evaluating potential American Express partners had very little in common with the brutally judicious mafia bosses in the Godfather and had more of a Nanny from Muppet Babies vibe, happy to absently mutter "You kids be good now" before leaving the room for an irresponsible period of time.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
"Don't drink any of the candy I keep under the sink."
This became a problem when a salad oil importer that American Express had been vouching for fooled them and the entire financial world with the oldest, most insultingly stupid trick in the petty criminal playbook. If you've ever watched a movie in which a drug transaction takes place, or paid $75 for an eighth of oregano, you're familiar with the trick. The reason drug dealers in movies always taste the bag of white powder is because they want to be sure the drug mule hasn't swapped it with baking soda. The drug mule will usually say something like "C'mon, Rico! What am I, an idiot? You think I'd scam you?" But Rico always, always tests the product, because the only thing deader than a drug mule trying to sell baking soda to a drug dealer is the drug dealer who actually manages to fall for that shit.
Dissolve fade back to the offices of American Express in the early '60s. A guy with a suspicious background selling mystery meat to the school lunch program with the suspiciously Italian name of Anthony "Tino" De Angelis is making the suspicious claim that he controls most of the nation's supply of vegetable oil and offering a suspiciously good deal to American Express if they vouch for him and let him keep his shit at their house. Background checks on his importing company reveal a credit rating of "punk-ass bitch who needs to get got." In the criminal underworld, this would be a clear cut verdict of "ass kicking for having wasted your time."
"Our preliminary research indicates a face only a shiv could love."
Instead, American Express spent the next couple of years vouching for De Angelis to anyone who would listen. When this happens in the movies, it's usually because the voucher and vouchee come from the same neighborhood (Rounders) or the same ball sack (The Godfather) or did time together (Reservoir Dogs, Heat). It's unclear why American Express vouched for De Angelis. Maybe they just realized that if he wasn't a scumbag, they'd be way richer, and if he was a scumbag ... hey, let's start talking about the one where we get rich again. And so, American Express spent the next couple of years insisting that De Angelis was a real stand-up guy, and everyone assumed they knew what they were talking about and lent him money for the insane amounts of 100 percent pure, uncut salad oil he claimed to be storing in American Express-owned warehouses.
Even after they realized that De Angelis was storing more salad oil in their warehouse than existed in the entire rest of the country, and even when they heard rumors that De Angelis had installed pipes under the enormous tanks in their warehouse, they never strayed from their official judgment: The guy's a good shit.
"Or a dumbshit. Or a piece of shit. The point is, he's some type of shit."
Imagine that movie drug transaction, only when the guy tells Rico, "You can trust me," Rico was like "Oh, well in that case, I'll buy all of it, and sell it to the least fucking-around drug dealers I know for the price of 100 percent pure cocaine." And then before they've had a chance to hear back from any of the drug dealers, Rico realizes that they've sold more cocaine than technically exists in the world, and he starts to hear rumors that there are giant piles of powdered sugar and baking soda boxes scattered around his drug mule's car. Well, you can probably guess how many creative ways Rico would be murdered by the end of the movie. Unless you were working for American Express in the early 1960s, in which case you're waiting to find out what Rico spent all of his well-earned money on.
It turned out De Angelis was the worst kind of shit. The only difference between the hypothetical scenario that fooled Rico and the salad oil swindle is that De Angelis had realized that he could take the worthless decoy in the drug switcheroo, a grocery item, and turn it into $200 million. He just needed a gullible partner and something even more worthless than groceries. For the decoy, he settled on the most abundant and worthless liquid on the planet: seawater. The warehouse that was supposed to be full of most of the salad oil in America was actually mostly full of seawater. There was a little salad oil on the top, which fooled inspectors (oil rises, and people generally only check the surface of shipments when they're being imported by companies that American Express says are good for it). Once the oil was in the warehouse, they piped oil and seawater back and forth between containers, which worked as long as American Express only looked in the tanks De Angelis said to look in when he said to look in them. Which must have been exactly what they did, since they never discovered the scheme.
"This is food, not underpants. Why waste time with thorough inspections?"
When salad oil began to plummet on the market and customers came to them for the salad oil they'd paid too much money for, the scheme was discovered, De Angelis disappeared with hundreds of millions of dollars, and American Express was on the hook for more money than they actually had at the time.
In fact, the only reason American Express is still a company today and not just a cautionary tale is because Warren Buffett decided that they'd learned their lesson and saved them from bankruptcy, although it's impossible to guess how many people he made them kill to prove they were good for it.