War in Colombia’s Oilfields

War in Colombia’s Oilfields

Counterinsurgency aid will be a big boost to Occidental Petroleum.


Arauca, Colombia

Colombia’s polls had been closed for only a few hours. The runner-up hadn’t even conceded. The President-elect was waiting for the final results to come in before giving his victory speech. Yet there was US Ambassador Anne Patterson on TV, congratulating Álvaro Uribe Vélez on his stunning first-round triumph. “It shows that Colombians are fed up with terrorism,” Patterson told reporters. Before the May elections the United States had gone to great lengths to show it favored no candidate. But Patterson’s early evening appearance at Uribe’s campaign headquarters killed any pretense of impartiality. The United States had its man.

Uribe had campaigned around two themes: more government soldiers, fewer (read: dead) guerrillas. Simple as it sounds, it worked. He got 53 percent of the vote in the elections, a clear mandate to do the kinds of things that make human rights groups cringe and the United States crow: mobilize a million people to help the government fight the four-decade-old insurgency, and negotiate peace with the right-wing paramilitary groups many consider to be the government’s lynch squads.

The President-elect spent the two days after his victory asking for more war matériel from Washington, and despite some opposition, it looks as though he may get it. In the past two years the United States has given Colombia $1.7 billion to fight drugs as part of “Plan Colombia.” But in the wake of 9/11, many in Washington believe the time is right to declare war on the rebels. “It only makes sense to apply the policies which now guide our worldwide war on terror to the scourge of terrorism in Colombia,” Representative Cass Ballenger told the House Subcommittee on Western Affairs in April as the debate over the new aid began. But there’s little evidence to show that Uribe, even with US help, will be able to control the escalating conflict. In fact, there’s good reason to believe the country’s civil war will spiral even further out of control.

Still, Washington seems determined to send a message to the guerrillas that their time is coming. The White House has requested more than $100 million to protect an oft-bombed pipeline in the eastern province of Arauca (in addition to more than $500 million requested for drug-eradication and military aid). But pipeline protection is a dangerous game, and US attention to it has quickly converted the Caño Limón oilfields in Arauca into a symbol of the larger war between the Americans and the guerrillas.

Of all the pipeline bombers I met when I was in Arauca, the scariest one was an unassuming kid who called himself Daniel. He was the classic militia: a dime-a-dozen kid from a poor section of the country with nothing to lose. The guerrillas, I thought, must have hundreds like him, and, as I found out, they do.

These “boys” blend into the local scenery perfectly. Daniel had fair skin, light-brown hair that he combed up and back over his head, and a thin little mustache. He liked to wear T-shirts and bell-bottom pants that covered his cowboy boots. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old and often acted his age. One morning he grinned as we drove by an electricity tower his colleagues had attempted to destroy. The tower stood on two of its four legs and leaned at a 75-degree angle. The wind, I asked, pointing at the tower. “Yeah,” he replied, “the wind of the explosion.”

But Daniel reserved his biggest smile for when I mentioned the oil pipeline he and his colleagues from the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), so often targeted. The line runs just north of his home town, Saravena. When it’s running smoothly, it carries 115,000 barrels a day of crude from the California-based Occidental Petroleum’s Caño Limón fields almost 500 miles to the port city of Coveñas on the Caribbean coast for export to the United States. It has become almost a rite of passage to lay waste to the inch-thick steel pipeline, and Daniel was more than happy to tell me how he became a man.

It’s a simple operation, he explained as we sipped sodas in a billiards hall. Eight men dressed in civilian clothes head into the fields where the pipeline is buried six feet deep in the ground. One of them carries about twenty-five pounds of explosives in a burlap sack with wires to connect it; the others carry shovels and picks. Each one packs a pistol.

When they reach a good spot, three of them secure the perimeter and the others start digging the hole. Occasionally an Occidental-funded Skymaster airplane flies overhead snapping pictures of the bombers. But it’s so loud, the bombers have time to put a few sticks over the half-dug hole and hide in the trees before it goes past them. Even if the plane does spot them, it would take the army several hours to mobilize in the pipeline’s defense. In all, carving out enough dirt to destroy the pipeline takes only a couple of hours. “It’s great when the spray of oil goes straight into the air,” Daniel told me, displaying his ear-to-ear grin again.

The first time I saw what is generally called the Caño Limón, the pipeline was being fixed. Thirty-five workers, most of them standing around a 200-meter-long hole in the ground and little lakes of black oil, watched a backhoe lift up the line so they could take out some wooden pylons they were using to keep it upright.

This was the first bombing in close to two months, perhaps the longest stretch of time without an attack in several years. Guerrillas have hit the line more than 900 times since 1986, including 170 last year, spilling more than 2 million barrels of oil into the environment (Oxy likes to point out that it’s about ten times what the Exxon Valdez spilled in 1989). The attacks forced Occidental to shut the line for seven months during 2001 and call force majeure on its oil exports; the government lost $425 million in oil revenue, Occidental $75 million in profits. This was about 0.5 percent of Colombia’s GDP. “It would be as if Microsoft and GM suddenly shut down,” an Oxy official told me, perhaps exaggerating a bit.

The bombings also pushed the Bush Administration to consider a new policy toward the increasingly bold rebel groups, the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). The $100 million the White House wants to spend on protecting the pipeline would be used to train several special army units and provide more intelligence equipment and helicopters. Most of the aid Washington has given under Plan Colombia has been in the form of helicopters, equipment and training for three 1,200-man antinarcotics units operating in the south of the country. The new aid proposal, however, has a twist: no more constraints. “These funds begin to apply the President’s decision to shift from a strictly counterdrug effort to a more broadly based effort targeted at helping Colombia fight the terrorists in its midst as well as the drugs,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

As I stood and watched, the workers were spreading two metal sheets over the line as well as a chain-link fence to further protect it from bombings. A representative of state oil company Ecopetrol told me the army had thwarted thirty-eight possible attacks during the two-month drought, some because of these metal sheets and others because the army had increased the number of soldiers guarding the line to some 1,600 men.

Several army patrols milled about the repair area. They had a grim look on their faces. Two of their fellow soldiers had been hurt the day before when one of them had stepped on a mine. This was the Colombian war in a nutshell: If they didn’t get them one way, the rebels got them another.

The severity of Colombia’s civil war seems to have increased geometrically in recent years. The FARC and the ELN routinely launch crude homemade bombs at military installations, frequently missing their target. The rebels also plant explosives in urban districts and kidnap close to 2,000 civilians a year. Recently, the FARC issued a general threat to all locally elected officials: If they don’t resign from their posts, they will be considered “military targets.” By mid-July dozens of mayors and city councilmen had resigned, putting the country’s fragile democracy in checkmate.

The guerrillas’ archenemies, the illegal right-wing paramilitary groups, counter by annually massacring hundreds of civilians they suspect of working with the rebels. In all, about 4,000 people, most of them civilians, die each year in the civil war, while a few hundred thousand are forcibly displaced from their homes. When the three-year-old peace process between the FARC and the government broke down in February, the FARC went on a bombing spree, knocking out electricity in a half-dozen provinces and setting the stage for the latest debate in Washington on whether the United States should consider the guerrilla group a threat to its interests. The Caño Limón is the first test of US resolve.

Arauca is notorious for its corruption. Some of the province’s roads still aren’t paved despite more than $1 billion in oil royalties that have passed through local politicians’ hands. Worse than the roads are the dozens of other useless projects: a recently built velodrome that was used for one bicycle race and is now a pasture for cows and donkeys; a gaudy monument to the local sport of tipping cows by twisting their tails; an extra control tower at the Arauca airport. Last year a former governor and local mayor were sanctioned by the government’s inspector general for embezzlement. Hundreds of other cases are pending. The situation is so bad that Ecopetrol and the attorney general’s office signed an agreement in April to monitor royalties more closely; some suspect these people will also end up on the gravy train.

The rise of guerrilla activity in the region is intimately connected to both the corruption and the Caño Limón. The ELN charges up to a 5 percent “tax” on all public-works projects, most of the money for which comes from the royalties. Some local politicians are also known as “guerrilla” and allegedly make regular deposits into rebel bank accounts. The pipeline itself was instrumental in revitalizing a wounded ELN, which was still reeling from an early 1970s army offensive when Occidental made its billion-barrel discovery in 1983. Virtually overnight Colombia became an oil exporter, and the ELN became a regional menace instead of a doormat. Widespread frustration with corruption, mixed with despair over the economic situation, made it easy for the rebels to recruit. Oil royalties provided funding for the war. Soon the ELN’s Arauca front was the guerrilla group’s strongest.

It’s not always clear why the bombings continue, since the guerrillas profit from the pipeline. At the very least, the attacks serve to pressure the company and the government into taking notice of the guerrillas. There are also economic benefits for those involved in reconstruction; a virtual food chain has materialized. Construction and metal workers, engineers and technicians are all needed to fix the line. The head engineer where I saw the repairs told me that at least thirty-five workers will repair an attack site. Added to the bill are overtime rates, rental fees for the backhoes and bulldozers, and the cost of gasoline and jet fuel. In addition, the farmers near attack sites get indemnities for damaged crops. My pipeline bomber friend Daniel said that sometimes the peasant landowners help the rebels dig the holes.

The FARC didn’t enter the fray until a few years ago, but it caught on quickly and last year was responsible for the majority of the attacks. The FARC’s intentions may have been aimed at the ELN as much as the company; the two rebel groups have waged a bloody territorial dispute in Arauca. One source of ire was reportedly the ELN’s control over the province’s royalties. Although attacks on the pipeline had increased over the years, the ELN had avoided completely shutting down Occidental production. Last year, while Occidental’s fields were offline, there were no royalties. The FARC, meanwhile, took command of the province.

Both the guerrillas and the US government realize that pipeline security has become paramount to the country’s oil industry. Without more discoveries, Colombia will return to its status as a net importer sometime around 2005. The publicity surrounding the bombings is not helping the situation. The count got so high last year that one press agency set up a betting pool. These days Occidental no longer comments on bombings, and Ecopetrol does so only with great reluctance. Both expect attacks to continue, but US assistance to the region has given the cause greater urgency.

In Arauca I met a perpetual string of bombers that may only get longer once Washington gets directly involved in the fight here. Daniel introduced me to his self-described “astute” militia leader, who said he was trained in “intelligence and counterintelligence.” The leader said fifty others were working with him. “If one or two die,” he said, “I’m not worried, because there are plenty of others” to replace them. Daniel and his leader hooked me up with a midlevel commander and another bombing aficionado, Farid. When I asked him about US aid to protect the pipeline, he muttered words like “fuckers” and “mines” and “they’re going to die.” FARC commander Sandino down the road told me things had gotten a little more difficult since the army increased its presence around Caño Limón, “but we’ll get there.”

The ELN wasn’t too far behind. After a yearlong truce to promote peace negotiations with the government, the smaller of the two rebel groups declared war on Occidental, Ecopetrol and anyone else who supports the new US war plan. To these guys, Caño Limón isn’t just a target anymore, it’s a symbol of everything that’s wrong with US involvement in Colombia. “Oxy–it’s American. What more do I need to say?” ELN Commander Pablo told me. “All it wants is violence.” The main complaint of both guerrilla groups is that the government caters to foreign oil companies, which are draining the country of its natural resources. The criticism is only partly true: Recently Ecopetrol has reduced the state take to entice more foreign companies to explore for oil because the company doesn’t have enough money to do it on its own.

Occidental, which has lobbied hard for US military aid to Colombia, gives the military hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in what it calls “nonlethal” assistance. This includes uniforms, airplane tickets to visit home, food and other amenities like soap, toothbrushes and even condoms. The company transports army personnel to bomb sites (it used to transport troops to protect the line until the guerrillas shot down a helicopter in 1998, killing twenty-seven soldiers). It also contracted the Skymaster airplane that roams up and down the pipeline taking infrared pictures of potential attackers. The contract has since been transferred to the Colombian Air Force, but Oxy still pays some maintenance costs on military equipment.

The Skymaster, which is owned by the Florida-based company AirScan, has deviated from its stated mandate of protecting the pipeline. In December 1998 two US civilians manning the plane provided information to the army and air force to carry out a raid on a guerrilla column some thirty miles from the pipeline. After a strategy session held in a meeting room at Oxy’s oilfields to determine the target, an army helicopter dropped a US-made cluster bomb on the village of Santo Domingo, killing eighteen, including seven children, and wounding twenty-three others. Human rights groups are livid about Colombian military and US government attempts to cover up the error by claiming that the guerrillas planted a car bomb in the village. Occidental, which is awaiting a verdict in the case from Colombian courts, has so far been silent.

Just a few days before I arrived in Arauca, several hundred right-wing paramilitaries visited the small roadside town of Betoyes. They called all the residents to a meeting, during which they reportedly said they were going clean up the province in three years. The paramilitaries were there for less than twelve hours before the guerrillas showed up and killed two of their fighters. The paras then regrouped and headed back toward their home base in Tame, about twenty miles away. The residents of Betoyes didn’t wait three years. They all left, more than seventy families, before nightfall.

Paramilitary leaders have told me on several occasions they protect business interests in Colombia, especially international companies. The right-wing groups have a strong presence near British Petroleum’s oilfields in the province of Casanare, just south of Arauca. They control the Urabá region near the Panamanian border, where Dole and Chiquita have banana plantations. In the northeast the paramilitaries have troops around a coal mine owned by Alabama-based Drummond. Throughout Colombia they have established bases near Coca-Cola bottling factories. (The International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington-based NGO, has filed suit against Drummond and Coca-Cola on behalf of the companies’ unions; union leaders say the companies have used paramilitaries to murder and intimidate them.)

It’s also not the first time the paramilitaries would be playing point man for a joint US/Colombian counterinsurgency plan. In the southern province of Putumayo–a FARC bastion for years and the center of coca production in Colombia–paramilitaries arrived just ahead of the thousands of US-trained antidrug forces. As the Colombian government deployed its new, specially trained troops two years ago, paramilitary leaders suspiciously ate US Army-supplied rations and bragged to reporters that they were spearheading the fight to retake the area.

In southwestern Arauca the paramilitaries have established a presence in three towns, including Tame. The right-wing groups have already allegedly killed dozens of suspected rebel supporters in and around the city, including a witness to the Santo Domingo bombing. Locals complained to me that the paramilitaries set up roadblocks just a few hundred meters from the military’s checkpoints, where they can nab victims and intimidate residents into supporting them.

This part of Arauca would also be home to the US military plan to protect Caño Limón. Details are still being firmed up, but according to military officials at the embassy the initial sketch has US advisers training three 100-man units to act as rapid deployment forces when Caño Limón security has been breached. Another unit, which would be trained as a special detection force, would be deployed in small teams, with the latest communications and night-vision equipment. The entire operation would be supported by helicopters and maybe even a new reconnaissance plane.

In Washington there are calls to respect the principles governing aid to a Colombian military with a long history of ties to paramilitaries. The Leahy Amendment, first passed in 1996 and later expanded, forbids the United States from supporting any military unit with credible evidence of human rights violations. The US Embassy, which must now vet any brigade slated to receive aid, said it vetted the 18th Brigade, which oversees Arauca, at the beginning of 2002. This process included checking that military commanders and soldiers are not under investigation for abuses.

That Tame is the center of paramilitary operations in Arauca isn’t deterring US aid; nor is the fact that a battalion based in Arauca is being investigated for its involvement in the 1999 paramilitary killings of more than 145 people in the neighboring province of Norte de Santander. Government investigators say the 46th Counterguerrilla Battalion either allowed or participated directly in some of the murders; several members of the battalion, including a major, have been suspended. The 46th is now posted just outside Oxy’s fields. Embassy officials said the 46th wasn’t vetted because it wasn’t part of the “organic” structure of the 18th Brigade but had more of a “task force” relationship. But the general in charge of the 18th said he had commanded the 46th battalion for the past two years.

Despite all the potential problems, the US Embassy is confident this plan can work. Yet the guerrillas are facing up to the new challenges with their usual adaptability. They’re now using charges instead of shovels and picks, thus allowing them to make holes for bombs in less than ten minutes. They’re making the explosives with ammonium nitrate, a compound that farmers can traffic into the region legally, since it’s also a fertilizer. They’re also taking to the air. The day after I left Arauca, the army said it destroyed an airplane on a clandestine runway that had three homemade bombs in it. The military commander of the region said the guerrillas were going to drop them on the 18th Brigade headquarters in Arauca.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy