War in Colombia's Oilfields
by Steven Dudley
The Nation magazine, August 5 /12, 2002
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
Alvaro Uribe Velez 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 Iynch squads.
The President-elect spent the two days after his victory asking
for more war materiel 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 Caho Limon 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 bellbottom 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
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
Cano Limon fields almost 500 miles to the port city of Covenas
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 Cano Limon,
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
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 counter-drug 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
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 Cano Limon 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 Cano Limon. 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 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 repay 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 off-line, 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 mid-level. 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 Cano
Limon, "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, Cano Limon
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
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 "non-lethal" 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
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 Uraba 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
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 anti-drug 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
This part of Arauca would also be home to the US military
plan to protect Cano Limon. 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 Cano Limon 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 Counter-guerrilla 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
Steven Dudley, who reports for NPR from Bogota, is currently
finishing a book on Colombia to be published by Routledge. Research
support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.