New Internationalist

Moths to the Flame

Issue 361

The more effort that goes into protecting oil pipelines,the less secure are the people living around them. Jason Hagen investigates the spiral of pipeline violence and its impact on innocent Colombians.

One autumn day last year in Colombia’s Arauca province some 2,000 people were rounded up by the military in the town of Saravena. Using new emergency police powers, the military took these people to the local stadium. There they were photographed. Then they had their fingerprints taken. Those without a criminal record were stamped on the arm with indelible ink. Eighty people were arrested and 43 were taken to jail in Bogotá.

Although the Colombian Constitutional Court declared the judicial police powers unconstitutional in late November 2002, the Government is now trying to change the constitution in order to retain those powers, and reports from the region suggest that the armed forces continue to act as if they enjoyed such powers. As one local mayor told El Tiempo newspaper in March: ‘It seems as if the war is against us and not against the guerrillas.’

Cano Limon–Covenas Oil Pipeline

Route: 780 kilometres. From the Caño Limón oilfield in the northeastern province of Arauca (on the Venezuelan border) the pipeline climbs from 300 to nearly 2,500 metres above sea-level, and then descends to Coveñas on the Caribbean coast. Corporate owners: Ecopetrol (initially a state enterprise, Empresa Colombiana del Petróleo, that is now a private company with public capital) holds 50% ownership of the pipeline; US-based Occidental Petroleum holds 44%; and Spain’s Repsol-YPF holds 6%. Contracted builders: Mannesmann and Bechtel. Volume of oil transported per day: Presently carries 110,000 barrels per day (when operating).

The guerrillas he is referring to are two of Colombia’s main armed groups demanding social reform from their Government – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC, the ELN and the Government have been fighting a civil war that now spans four decades. The FARC tends to attack the military and political institutions of the state, while the ELN destroys physical infrastructure such as oil pipelines to make its point. In recent years the attention of both has focused on the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline: bombed 152 times in 2000 and a record 178 times in 2001.

Guerrilla attacks resulted in spills and lost production that are estimated to have cost the Govern-ment nearly $500 million in 2001. According to the Government, guerrillas have bombed Colombia’s pipelines more than 1,000 times in the past 13 years, spilling 2.9 billion barrels of crude. The Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline is their most frequent target, striking a substantial blow to the country’s economy. As a result, five of the six army battalions that make up Colombia’s 18th Brigade are now involved in pipeline protection.

For communities living around the areas through which the pipeline travels, it means increasing military repression. In the town of Saravena the brigade has engaged in psychological warfare operations, using clowns to earn the co-operation of children. Accompanied by uniformed troops, the clowns move door-to-door handing out candy and leaflets that promise rewards to residents who provide information about guerrilla activities. Children between the ages of three and twelve have been invited to the military base to play ‘Soldier for A Day’. According to the Saravena base commander, Colonel Santiago Herrera: ‘We decided to concentrate on the children because it’s the fastest way to reach their parents,’ many of whom he suspects are guerrilla collaborators.

This attitude ensures that, as the Colombian armed forces protect the pipelines against the guerillas, it is civilians who are getting caught in the crossfire. From September 2002 to May 2003, Saravena and two other municipalities in Colombia’s Arauca province (where the pipeline starts) were part of a ‘Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zone’. There was another similar zone in Colombia and it too was around the pipeline – in the area where it reaches the sea. In these zones the Government ceded special powers to the military at the expense of elected civilian leaders and gave military commanders the additional judicial police powers mentioned above. Flexing these powers in the three municipalities in the Arauca Zone led to more than 1,300 searches and ‘voluntary registrations’ by February, and added at least 49,000 people to the police database.

But in a region intended to be a security priority and a showcase for how pacification can work under the new Government, Arauca suffered from violence on an unprecedented scale during the last year: in only a few months five car bombings attributed to guerrillas that took 14 lives and injured 18; several assassinated mayors, government advisors and city-council members; numerous resignations of elected officials under threat from armed actors; rotating military and police commanders; selective assassinations for which no responsibility is claimed; and the forced displacement of rural dwellers in untold numbers.

This is partly the work of FARC and the ELN. But it is also the work of illegal right-wing forces working outside formal military command: extremist paramilitaries that aim to ‘purify’ the province of politicians, journalists and others they believe are affiliated with the guerrillas. With an estimated 800 paramilitaries in Arauca, together with 2,000 FARC fighters and 1,000 ELN troops, the murder rate in the area soared this year to about 160 killings per 100,000 people – twice the rate of the late 1990s.

For both the left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries, oil is the fuel that keeps them – and their violence – alive, providing them with part of the money they need to remain armed and viable. Indeed, several million dollars in extortion payments levied by the ELN against the contractor that built the Caño Limón pipeline allegedly brought that ailing rebel group back to life. It had dwindled to a few dozen members; today there are up to 5,000 ELN militants.

Guerrilla revenues from oil-related extortion and kidnapping were calculated at $140 million annually in the late 1990s. And competition for the proceeds can be fierce. Insiders say that the FARC bombings shut the pipeline down for 220 days in 2001 to force the ELN to share more of the pipeline proceeds that it had been successfully extorting from local government. The two groups struck a deal and the number of attacks declined to fewer than 50 in 2002.

As one local mayor says 'it seems as if the war is against us and not against the guerrillas'

So why do oil companies persevere in using a pipeline prone to such corruption and instability? From the corporate perspective, oil transportation in Colombia is a safer bet than in many of the other oil-rich regions of the world. ‘Despite the public-order problem here, and all the other problems in Colombia, there is a relative stability that the Middle East does not have right now,’ explained an Ecopetrol official in November 2001.

And – in the view of the US Government – it can be supposedly made safer still. Between 1996 and 2000 Occidental (one of the main US oil corporations operating in Colombia) spent nearly $8.7 million lobbying US officials on Latin America policy, largely related to Colombia. Occidental denies that it requested any special favours of the US Government to protect its oil fields and pipeline in Colombia, because making that happen seemed ‘out of the realm of possibility’. Nevertheless, the US Government has recently provided $99 million to help protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline. In addition, the Bush Administration has requested an undetermined amount – up to $147 million – for munitions, equipment and training for oil-pipeline protection in the fiscal year 2004.

For its part, the US wants to secure oil sources beyond the Middle East. From 1996 to 2000 Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador together exported the same average amount of crude to the US as all the Persian Gulf States combined. Colombia ranks between fifth and tenth annually as a foreign oil supplier to the US.

The importance of Colombia and its oil-producing neighbours, Ecuador and Venezuela – and the need to bring ‘stability’ to these regions – has been in the background of US policy debates about Andean military aid for some time. But the complexities of Colombia’s conflict and the pivotal role oil plays have been overshadowed by anti-terrorist rhetoric in both Washington and Bogotá. Since 2000, US politicians have publicly justified the $2.5 billion Plan Colombia aid package as being needed for a ‘war against drugs’ produced in Colombia and supplied to the lucrative US market. Now the US State Department increasingly argues that its goal is to provide security for all Colombians, and that protecting the Caño Limón pipeline is part of an integrated package that includes aerial fumigation of coca and poppy crops, as well as counter-insurgency assistance.

Despite congressional requests for more transparency, it is unclear how much money will be spent or how many years the mission will take. But if the role of the US in Colombia is not being made clear to Congress, it seems clear to Major William White, who is in charge of the US special forces in Arauca: ‘Our mission is to train the Colombians to find, track down and kill the terrorists before they attack the pipeline.’

As a result of the program, more than 70 members of the US Army’s 7th Special Forces Group are in the province of Arauca, and they expect to train 7,000 Colombian troops. This US presence has only intensified the conflict. Instead of calming Arauca, the guerrillas have aggressively resisted the presence of US military advisors.

‘Pipeline assistance’ now amounts to a subsidy of at least $3.70 per barrel for Occidental.

For ordinary Colombians it means they must continue to suffer the brunt of the violence in a war that seems to have no end.

Jason Hagen is a former associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. This article is an edited version of ‘Protecting the pipeline: the US military mission expands’ in Colombia Monitor (Washington Office on Latin America, May 2003), which can be read in full at http://www.wola.org

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