Macuspana, Tabasco, Mexico — The billboard posted along the scrubby highway running east in the sultry southern state of Tabasco displays lush jungle, a sun-dappled iguana, and a flock of dazzling macaws. “We’re working for a better environment” the giant road sign radiates.
The leafy graphic contrasts starkly with the blighted scenery of this tropical state, where rivers have been contaminated, the fish envenomed, and the corn fields blasted by acid rain that drips from the polluted sky thanks to the efforts of Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the national oil monopoly and its multiple transnational subcontractors. It is a testament to the fact that Tabasco holds Mexico’s largest land-based petroleum deposits.
But the billboard here in Macuspana — the swampy, oil-rich region settled by the Chontal tribe — was not posted by the Environmental Secretariat to inspire conservationism or even by PEMEX to burnish its tarnished image. No, this pristine scene is signed off by a familiar name for the United States: Halliburton de Mexico. The Houston-based petroleum industry titan’s south-of-the-border subsidiary is PEMEX’s largest subcontractor. Vice President Dick Cheney’s old megacorporation and the largest oil service provider on the planet has been doing business in Mexico for many years.
The privatization of PEMEX, nationalized in 1938 after depression-era president Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated Caribbean coast oil enclaves from Anglo American owners, was right at the heart of Mexico’s still-questioned July 2 presidential election. Right-winger Felipe Calderón, a former energy secretary, is committed to selling off Mexico’s diminishing oil reserves — or at least entering into joint agreements that would guarantee private corporations a substantial quotient of them (the reserves have only 10 more good years, according to the worst-case scenario).
On the other side of the presidential ledger, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a native of Macuspana who many Mexicans believe actually won the presidency, advocates maintaining the state’s control over PEMEX, an entity that pays for more than 40 percent of the Mexican government’s annual budget, on the grounds that the oil wealth of the nation belongs to the Mexican people and no one else.
Knowing full well which side their bread was buttered on, transnationals like Halliburton rushed to support Calderón — as did Cheney, the corporation’s former CEO (1995–2000), and his running mate, George W. Bush. Both Cheney and Bush have long-standing ties to the Mexican oil industry. Bush’s daddy ran Zapata Offshore, a PEMEX subcontractor, back in the 1960s. His partner Jorge Diaz Serrano, a former PEMEX director, served prison time for an oil tanker kickback scheme. Cheney’s Halliburton somehow finagled its way into lucrative service contracts for the newly opened offshore Cantarell field (said to contain upward of 12 billion barrels) back in the 1990s.
How Halliburton got in on the ground floor smells fishy to National Autonomous University professor John Saxe-Fernandez, who tracks strategic resources. The Cantarell contracts were assigned while Cheney was running the show in Houston. At the same time, the Texas conglomerate was busy across the Atlantic allegedly bribing Nigerian oil officials, according to press reports and a French magistrate.
The truth is the debate about privatizing PEMEX is no longer much of a debate. PEMEX has long since subcontracted virtually its entire exploration and perforation divisions to transnationals such as Halliburton, Fluor-Daniels, and the San Francisco–based Bechtel, leaving PEMEX a virtual shell.
Cheney’s old outfit has grabbed the lion’s share of this billion-dollar prize. Between 2000 and 2005, Halliburton picked up 159 contracts with PEMEX’s Perforation and Exploration division for a total of $2.5 billion, about a quarter of PEMEX’s annual operating budget, according to Saxe-Fernandez. The contracts cover everything from drilling slant and vertical wells to maintaining offshore platforms to logging out a jungle for the drilling of 27 turnkey wells in Tabasco and Chiapas.
With 1,250 employees and thousands of contract workers, Halliburton de Mexico has offices in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche (the fast-shrinking Cantarell operation); Reynosa Tamaulipas, where Cheney’s boys are helping to exploit the Burgos natural gas fields; and Poza Rica Veracruz, a region in which Standard Oil’s Harry Doherty and Lord Cowry (Weetman Pierson), owner of what eventually became British Petroleum, once ruled with an iron fist and where Halliburton is now combing through what is left of its old Chicontepec field.
Halliburton also maintains offices in Mexico City and Villahermosa Tabasco, from which it oversees its off- and onshore Caribbean domain. Mexico’s Gulf Coast is not Halliburton’s only Caribbean operation. The KBR (Kellogg Brown Root) division of Cheney’s conglom built 207 cells at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 to house so-called enemy combatants.
Halliburton has had a boot planted in the rebel-ridden state of Chiapas since 1997, three years after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (known in Mexico as the EZLN) rose up and declared war on the Mexican government after the conglom built a natural gas separation plant in the north of that southernmost state. In 2003, Halliburton won a $20 million contract to expand natural gas infrastructure at Reforma — autonomous Zapatista communities lie south and east of the Halliburton installations.
Both PEMEX’s and Cheney’s associates have their eyes on Chiapas — ample reserves lie under the floor of the Lacandon jungle in areas where the Zapatistas have established their caracoles, or public centers, according to studies by National Autonomous University political geographer Andrés Barreda. Indeed, the first battle between the EZLN and the Mexican military took place near a capped well at Nazaret in the canyons that lead down to the jungle floor near where the Zapatista Road to Hope (La Garrucha, the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez) now sits.
According to closely held PEMEX numbers unearthed by Houston oil investigator George Baker, Nazaret was putting out a million cubic feet of natural gas a day when it was capped back in the early 1990s. If Halliburton had been in the picture then, it probably would have picked up the contract, and Dick Cheney, an avid if erratic hunter, would have gotten a chance to exterminate many endangered Lacandon jungle species.
In a religious mood, Cheney once wondered out loud why God did not put the oil under democratic countries, and with that mission in mind, he has set out to democratize foreign oligarchies. His endeavor to bring democracy to Iraq has resulted in more than 50,000 Iraqi dead, civil war, devastation and destruction in every corner of the land, and the systematic sabotage of that nation’s petroleum infrastructure.
Now Cheney and his Halliburton associates say they are democratizing Mexico, having aided and abetted the stealing of the presidential election from López Obrador in favor of Calderón, who would privatize PEMEX. As a member of the Council of Communication, which groups together transnationals doing business in Mexico, Halliburton helped pay for a vicious TV campaign that featured defamatory hit pieces tagging López Obrador a danger to Mexico. Because only political parties can mount such campaigns, Halliburton’s participation was patently illicit, according to Mexico’s highest electoral tribunal.
Planted outside Halliburton de Mexico’s offices in a soaring skyscraper overlooking Paseo de Reforma, where López Obrador’s people would soon be encamped last summer, 80-year-old former oil worker Jacinto Guzman remembered the great strikes (his father was a striker) that had impelled Cárdenas to expropriate the Caribbean complexes where Halliburton now rules — and bemoaned the depredations of Cheney and others of his ilk against what belongs to the Mexican people.
Dressed in a wrinkled suit and hard hat, the old oil worker said he was even more vexed by Halliburton’s participation in the smear campaign to vilify López Obrador.
As he told me, “The gringos think they own our elections too.” SFBG
John Ross is the Guardian’s correspondent in Mexico. His latest book is ZAPATISTAS — Making Another World Possible: Chronicles of Resistance 2000–2006.