REVENTADOR, Ecuador — The dam sits under the glare of an active volcano, with columns of ash spewing toward the sky.
Officials had warned against the dam for decades. Geologists said an earthquake could wipe it away.
大坝附近的雷文塔多火山在喷发火山灰。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Now, only two years after opening, thousands of cracks are splintering the dam’s machinery. Its reservoir is clogged with silt, sand and trees. And the only time engineers tried to throttle up the facility completely, it shook violently and shorted out the national electricity grid.
Nearly every top Ecuadorean official involved in the dam’s construction is either imprisoned or sentenced on bribery charges. That includes a former vice president, a former electricity minister and even the former anti-corruption official monitoring the project, who was caught on tape talking about Chinese bribes.
Then there is the price tag: around $19 billion in Chinese loans, not only for this dam, known as Coca Codo Sinclair, but also for bridges, highways, irrigation, schools, health clinics and a half dozen other dams the government is scrambling to pay for.
It doesn’t matter whether Ecuador can afford them.
China gets paid either way.
To settle the bill, China gets to keep 80 percent of Ecuador’s most valuable export — oil — because many of the contracts are repaid in petroleum, not dollars. In fact, China gets the oil at a discount, then sells it for an additional profit.
But that is not enough. Hobbled by the debts, President Lenín Moreno has slashed social spending, gasoline subsidies, several government agencies and more than 1,000 public jobs. Most economists expect the country to slide into recession, stirring outrage.
China made its plans clear a decade ago, when it swept into Latin America during the global financial crisis, tossing governments an economic lifeline and promising to “treat each other as equals,” a clear swipe at American dominance.
It worked. China, now South America’s top trading partner, has seeded the region with infrastructure and a staggering trail of loans. It has reaped political benefits, too, getting Latin American nations to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
During his time in government, officials had rejected a much smaller version of the project. The whole idea was doomed, he said, because of the volcano nearby. A major earthquake had decimated oil infrastructure in the area in 1987.
An independent review of the project in 2010, prepared by a Mexican government agency and obtained by The New York Times, warned that the amount of water in the region to power the dam had not been studied for nearly 30 years.
Since that time, Ecuador had suffered punishing droughts, and there were concerns that its glaciers were melting because of climate change.
Despite the advice, Luciano Cepeda, the dam’s former general manager, said top Ecuadorean officials pressed ahead anyway because “a new study would have taken several years” and they didn’t want to slow down.
Even a Chinese diplomat in Ecuador, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said he had his doubts about the project.
“We didn’t give sufficient attention to the environmental reporting,” the diplomat said.
火警电话上的标记，清楚地表明是谁修建了这座大坝。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
厄瓜多尔官员曾经否决一个比该大坝规模小得多的方案。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
China’s record offered both encouragement and cause for concern. Its massive Three Gorges Dam, which cuts the Yangtze River and rises 600 feet high, was the largest hydroelectric project in the world, designed to produce 20 times the power of the Hoover Dam.
Warnings aside, there were bigger geopolitical forces at play. Ecuador’s president at the time, Rafael Correa, was a left-wing populist who had vowed to modernize his country and free it from the orbit of the United States.
Elected in 2006 under a surge that brought leftists to power across Latin America, Mr. Correa took aim at the United States with fiery, anti-imperialist speeches. In 2008, he refused to renew a lease that allowed American anti-narcotics surveillance flights to operate from an Ecuadorean air force base.
Soon, Western financial institutions fell in Mr. Correa’s cross hairs. He denounced the International Monetary Fund, saying it put restrictions on his spending. Then in 2008, he defaulted on $3.2 billion of his country’s foreign debt and invited China to fill in the breach.
“Correa wanted to get away from Western banks and institutions,” said Diego Borja, Mr. Correa’s former minister of economic coordination. “We knew this relationship wouldn’t be an easy one with China.”
Mr. Borja and other officials were staggered by the terms on Chinese loans. Most came from a large state-owned lender, the Chinese Export-Import Bank, which had high interest rates and required Ecuador to use Chinese companies in construction, effectively eliminating competition.
China seemed particularly interested in oil from Ecuador, one of OPEC’s smallest members. In one deal in 2009, China lent Ecuador $1 billion, to be repaid in oil shipments to the state oil company PetroChina.
“But we didn’t have other options,” Mr. Borja recalled. “The doors were closed to the West.”
Mr. Correa suddenly had access to money, but a new crisis emerged: The country was running out of power. A drought was depleting the nation’s reservoirs, paralyzing its dams. Rather than look for another source, Mr. Correa doubled down on hydro power.
Officials say it was Mr. Correa’s electricity minister, Aleksey Mosquera, who first mentioned Coca Codo Sinclair: a megaproject that was supposed to provide a third of the country’s electricity and represent the single largest investment in Ecuador’s history.
When it finally opened in late 2016, China’s president, Xi Jinping, flew to Ecuador to celebrate.
Yet only two days before the visit, the dam was in chaos.
Engineers had tried to generate the project’s full 1500 megawatts, but neither the facility nor Ecuador’s electrical grid could handle it. The equipment shuddered dangerously, and blackouts spread across the country, officials said.
Ecuadoreans were never told about the failure, and a full power test has not been attempted since.
Today, the dam typically runs at half capacity. Experts say that given its design — and the cycle of wet and dry seasons in Ecuador — it would be able to generate the full amount of electricity for only a few hours a day, six months out of the year.
Ecuador still has to pay back the debt, though. The $1.7 billion loan from China’s Export-Import Bank is lucrative for China: 7 percent interest over 15 years. In interest alone, Ecuador owes $125 million a year.
Now, many Ecuadoreans say the burden falls on them.
Under the constant hum of the dam’s transmission towers, residents in the town of Cuyuja worry that the towers will topple in the constant mudslides. Geologists say the tower foundations weren’t built into bedrock by the Chinese.
At an entrance to the dam is an inscription, in marble.
“Jorge Glas Espinel, vice president of the republic,” it says. “For having forged and envisioned this monumental project.”
“共和国副总统豪尔赫·格拉斯·埃斯皮内尔(Jorge Glas Espinel)”，上面写道。“他设想并实现了这一不朽的工程。”
Mr. Glas now sits in a cell in Ecuador, sentenced to six years in prison.
He was convicted of taking bribes from China’s main competitor for infrastructure projects in much of Latin America: Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction giant. American prosecutors say Odebrecht paid $33.5 million in bribes in Ecuador as part of a worldwide scheme to win business.
Now Ecuadorean officials are investigating whether the Chinese also made payments to Mr. Glas and others around him.
蔗农卡洛斯·乌萨马和家人在手工榨甘蔗。去年附近一座大坝泄洪，导致他们家失去了一名亲人。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
当地皮艇手雅伊尔·罗布雷斯在大坝附近的吉柯斯河上。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the same people managed all these projects,” said Mr. Pérez, the energy minister.
The officials include Mr. Mosquera, the former electricity minister, who is serving a five-year sentence for taking $1 million from Odebrecht; and Carlos Pólit, the former anti-corruption official, who was charged with receiving millions in bribes from the company. Ricardo Rivera, another close associate of Mr. Glas, was also convicted of receiving payments from the Brazilians.
But evidence has emerged suggesting that officials took bribes from China as well.
Ecuadorean law enforcement officials say they have confirmed a secret tape recorded by an Odebrecht executive, given to Brazilian prosecutors and leaked to the Brazilian news media. In the recording, made at the house of Mr. Pólit, the anti-corruption official, the two men discuss a bribe.
The executive can be heard saying that Mr. Glas, Ecuador’s vice president, was “asking for a lot of money.”
The executive then explained that he was told “it was an obligation because the Chinese had already paid.”
The recording has set off an investigation, particularly around Mr. Rivera, who presented himself as the vice president’s representative during multiple visits to China, according to Ecuadorean law enforcement officials.
They say they are examining 13 bank transfers worth $17.4 million authorized by Mr. Rivera to an HSBC account in Hong Kong. Law enforcement officials say they consider the bank transfers authentic — and want to know how Mr. Rivera deposited so much money in China.
But Mr. Pérez abruptly resigned on Nov. 13, shortly after returning. He did not respond to interview requests.
A lawyer for Mr. Glas denied that his client had been involved in corruption with Coca Coda Sinclair, calling Mr. Glas “an honorable, honest man” and describing the dam’s problems as “small imperfections.”
A senior engineer sent records to Mr. Correa, the president, asking to brief him on the problems, according to documents viewed by The Times. The engineer was fired days later, according to former officials.
由于设计问题，水库出现了泥沙和树木的堵塞。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
为了支付修建大坝的费用，中国占据了厄瓜多尔最珍贵的出口资源——石油——出口量的80%，因为许多合同是以石油而非美元付款的。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Mr. Pólit, the anti-corruption official, performed audits. But they resulted in only mild criticism like work delays, with minor fines against the Chinese.
Ecuadorean law enforcement officials say they are investigating whether Mr. Pólit and other officials were paid by the Chinese to overlook the problems. It was part of Mr. Pérez’s inquiry before his resignation, they say.
Now, 7,648 cracks have developed in the dam’s machinery, according to the government, because of substandard steel and inadequate welding by Sinohydro. Sand and silt are also big concerns because they can damage vital equipment.
One sign in Chinese reads correctly: “Direct-Current (DC) Pumping Group.”
The Spanish does not: “Pressure Group from Washington, D.C.”
一块用中文、英文和西班牙文写的设备标牌。中文是正确名称：“直流泵组压力”。西班文则变成了“来自华盛顿特区的压力组”。FEDERICO RIOS ESCOBAR FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
The communication problems extend downriver.
The heavy sedimentation means engineers sporadically release large amounts of water to clear out the system, causing flash floods where Carlos Usamá, a sugar cane farmer, lives. No one warns him, he says.