September 15, 2002


Blood Spills to Keep Oil
Wealth Flowing

 Colombia: Violence
explodes in province where army, under U.S. pressure, focuses on protecting
an Occidental pipeline.


ARAUCA, Colombia — Under
pressure from Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and the U.S. government,
the Colombian military has redeployed its forces to protect a key oil pipeline,
leading to an explosion of violence in the undefended countryside.

    The army
has reassigned the majority of its troops in this war-torn province to
patrol the pipeline, which is jointly owned by Occidental and the Colombian
state oil company. Leftist guerrillas battling the government shut down
production for a total of eight months in 2001, but this year the number
of attacks on the pipeline has plunged.

in Arauca, the province that surrounds the pipeline, have paid the price.
In the absence of any sustained military presence since late last year,
Colombia’s violent right-wing paramilitary squads quickly moved in, unleashing
a campaign of murder and terror with impunity.

of politicians, journalists, businessmen and ordinary residents have been
kidnapped and killed in the “dirty war.” Brutal combat between the paramilitaries
and leftist guerrillas has forced thousands to flee their homes. Scores
of people have simply disappeared.

is now the most violent province in one of the most violent countries in
the world.

there is fire on all sides,” said a man who was fleeing recent fighting
in the countryside, using his tractor to pull a wagon piled high with household
goods to Arauca, the provincial capital.

    The spiraling
chaos comes just as the U.S. begins its first tentative steps toward playing
a more direct role in Colombia’s bewildering internal conflict.

now, U.S. aid has been limited to fighting drug trafficking. But as early
as next month, the first U.S. instructors will arrive to launch a controversial
training program to help Colombian soldiers better protect the pipeline.
The U.S. is also planning to send helicopters and improve intelligence
sharing with the Colombian army.

charge that the plan forces U.S. taxpayers to provide security for a private
company, Occidental. And human rights groups say the local Colombian army
unit, the 18th Brigade, has aided the paramilitary advance, meaning that
U.S. trainers may become complicit in human rights abuses.

    “If you
bring in more troops, this conflict is only going to get worse,” said Enrique
Pertuz, the executive director of a local human rights group. “If your
enemy tries to overcome you with more arms and soldiers, you respond in
kind. There are going to be more killings, more massacres, more repression.”

Role of Paramilitaries

The Colombian army has long
been accused of cooperating with the paramilitaries because both sides
share a common enemy in the guerrillas. The paramilitaries, financed by
drugs and large landowners, use massacres and torture to fight the rebels
in areas that have been neglected by Colombia’s thinly stretched armed

and Colombian officials defend the training plan, saying it will protect
oil flow along the pipeline, which provides an important source of revenue
for the Colombian government. The additional income from the protected
pipeline will allow the Colombian government to step up efforts to combat
the rebels and paramilitaries, the officials argue, as well as the drugs
that flow to U.S. streets.

    But once
here, the U.S. troops will be stationed in barracks that suffer frequent
attacks from the guerrillas.

officials say they are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of
the American soldiers. A handful of U.S. military officers are already
on the ground in Arauca, trying to improve safety, but U.S. officials acknowledge
that the bases will be difficult to protect.

    The bases
are small, poorly defended and located in cities dominated by guerrilla
militias. “You do your best to focus on protecting your forces the best
you can. That doesn’t mean someone won’t get injured,” a U.S. official
said on condition of anonymity.

    For years,
Occidental and the Colombian government tolerated a system that allowed
the guerrillas to become rich from oil proceeds. Now, that wealth has resulted
in a clash between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries that the Colombian
army has been unable to contain.

Army Spread Thin

Colombian army officials
don’t dispute that their focus on the pipeline has hampered their ability
to maintain order in the disputed region, although they strenuously deny
paramilitary links. The U.S. aid will be the key to restoring their fighting
capability, they said.

    “If I
could free up 30% of the troops that are guarding the pipeline in order
to be able to go after the guerrilla and paramilitaries, things would be
different,” said Gen. Carlos Lemus, the commanding officer of the 18th

    The U.S.
has been entangled in conflict in Arauca before. Earlier this year, The
Times reported on the involvement of U.S. government spy planes, Oxy and
a Florida surveillance company, AirScan Inc., in a botched Colombian military
operation in 1998 that left 18 civilians dead in Santo Domingo, a small
hamlet in the province.

    But this
time, U.S. troops are arriving in the midst of a maelstrom that has put
Arauca on the front lines of Colombia’s nearly 40-year-old war.

Mario, the leader of the local paramilitaries, said U.S. troops are walking
into an inferno.

me, how many body bags are they going to bring?” he said as his men patrolled
a dirt road an hour away from 18th Brigade headquarters. “Are they ready
for combat in Colombia’s jungles?”

province was first populated in the 1940s and 1950s by waves of refugees
fleeing a period of bloody civil war known simply as La Violencia–the

    The settlers
arrived to a region of spare natural beauty, where Colombia’s vast eastern
prairie begins its sprawl from the Andes mountain range toward the border
with Venezuela.

savannah spreads like a green blanket in every direction. Hundreds of rivers
lace the mostly treeless flatlands, flooding in wet summers and drying
up in winters. Giant rodents called capybara roam the wetlands, and scores
of brightly colored birds fill the air.

    The impoverished
region was long forgotten by the central government in the faraway capital,
Bogota. The neglect allowed Colombia’s second-largest rebel army, the National
Liberation Army, or ELN, to take almost complete control. The rebels determined
who took public office through vote-buying and intimidation and extracted
“taxes” from local landowners.

in 1983, oil was discovered. Occidental teamed up with the Colombian government
to develop the 1.3-billion-barrel Cano Limon oil field, located along the
border with Venezuela. A 483-mile-long pipeline was built to take oil to
the coast.

Oil Cash in Rebel Hands

Though Occidental officials
deny any direct payments to the guerrillas, they acknowledge that oil money
poured into rebel hands via corrupt local government officials and Occidental

because, by law, part of the oil profits had to return to Arauca. The budget
for the local government–dominated by ELN sympathizers and allies–jumped
from $300,000 per year to $60 million to $80 million as a result of oil

    A tour
of Arauca shows how little of that money found its way to the community.
The province is filled with incomplete building projects, the result of
money siphoned away by guerrillas. There is a half-built water park, a
half-built bus terminal, even a half-built velodrome.

    The corruption
was an open secret. But no one did anything about it. It was simply easier
to keep the oil flowing.

guerrillas got rich,” said an Occidental executive.

    By 1999,
the money had attracted the interest of Colombia’s largest rebel group,
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. The group, which
has expanded rapidly in recent years, counts more than 18,000 fighters,
compared with about 3,000 for the ELN.

    The FARC
demanded a share of the money. The local ELN-controlled government refused.
And the so-called “royalty war” began.

    In 2001,
the FARC began to unleash a bombing campaign against the pipeline that
brought a halt to production–and thus to the revenues that the ELN relied
on to finance its army.

officials watched with growing nervousness as the FARC planted as many
as five bombs a day along the length of the pipeline. Oxy’s oil field–which
accounts for about 5% of the company’s total world production of 133 million
barrels of oil–was shut down for nearly four months beginning in March

    Top Occidental
executives began meeting with Colombian and U.S. officials in an effort
to persuade them to step up pipeline protection. They met with former President
Andres Pastrana and U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson.

    The executives’
argument was that Occidental wasn’t the only one losing money as a result
of the attacks. The Colombian government was giving up an average of $40
million a month in oil royalties, a sum that eventually equaled $500 million
for 2001–equivalent to 2% of the national budget.

officials began asking for improved pipeline security from the Colombians.
And they also began drawing up the plan to bring in American trainers for
the Colombian troops guarding the pipeline.

insists that it had no role in developing the Colombian government’s military
strategy other than providing detailed information on the attacks.

    But it
takes credit for raising the alarm.

    “We made
them realize that they could not allow the attacks to continue,” an Oxy
official said.

Protecting the Pipeline

The effort to increase pipeline
protection began in July 2001, after Oxy and U.S. pressure resulted in
a special Colombian security council meeting. The Colombian army sent in
a special forces unit for two months that successfully stopped attacks
against the pipeline. That convinced the military to redeploy more troops
on a permanent basis.

    On a
parallel track, the State Department began drawing up plans to improve
pipeline protection in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Its
$98-million proposal was a risky gambit. Previously, aid to Colombia had
been limited almost entirely to anti-narcotics efforts.

    But a
top U.S. official acknowledged on a recent visit to Colombia that the proposal
was a “test” of congressional willingness to expand the war on terrorism
to groups beyond those such as Al Qaeda. The State Department lists both
of Colombia’s leftist guerrilla groups as well as the paramilitaries as

    “We chose
the pipeline because every day it’s shut down it costs the Colombian government
a lot of money,” the official said. “One of the things we asked Colombians
to do is spend more money on their own defense…. It made sense to us
to keep a revenue-producing pipeline going.”

last December, the Colombian army put its new strategy in place. It more
than doubled the size of the force protecting the pipeline, adding three
more battalions to the two already assigned there. Military officials also
began working with the local prosecutor to step up prosecutions of suspected

a month, the aggressive new strategy showed results. Attack attempts continued
at the same pace, but now the army began intercepting the guerrillas before
the strikes were successful.

Attacks Decrease

So far this year, there
have been only 29 attacks on the pipeline, as opposed to 170 last year.
And they have shut down the pipeline for less than a month–compared with
eight months in 2001.

Colombian military officials said they still need U.S. training and equipment.
More helicopters will allow them to move even more quickly to attack the

    “If we
had mobility, we could move our foot soldiers … to other parts of the
province,” said Lemus, head of the local 18th Brigade. “We could maintain
a permanent offensive, perusing all the subversive groups, and not always
be stuck to the pipeline.”

    The improved
pipeline protection has meant disaster and terror for the rest of Arauca.

of families have fled the countryside for ill-prepared urban centers.

dirt roads are scenes of misery, with trucks piled high with furniture,
farm animals and families fleeing violence.

    The homicide
rate has soared. After an average of about 200 slayings a year in the late
1990s, the province is on track for a figure of more than 400 dead this
year, according to police statistics.

translates to a rate of about 160 killings per 100,000 people–more than
double Colombia’s already record high of 64 homicides per 100,000. In the
U.S., the figure is about six per 100,000 people.

has been a huge amount of uncertainty and fear,” said Luis Eduardo Velez,
the deputy governor of the province.

had learned how to live with the guerrillas. Now they have to learn to
deal with a totally different group.”

    In interviews,
local paramilitary commanders said their aim is to “purify” the province
of politicians, journalists and others affiliated with the guerrillas.
Targets are selected with the help of local guerrillas who have switched
sides to join the better-paying paramilitaries.

    On a
recent weekday, Comandante Mario and about three dozen of his men manned
a roadblock on a muddy street about 15 miles outside Arauca, the provincial

were well armed, each equipped with automatic rifles and one with an M-60
machine gun. They had a radio and said they were in constant communication
with other paramilitary fronts.

    The men,
members of the Capital Bloc of the Vanquishers of Arauca, as the local
paramilitary squad is known, insisted that they kill carefully.

an illegal, extreme-right army, but we have rules and regulations to prevent
civilians from being killed,” said Freddy, a squad leader.

said the paramilitaries follow a three-step process. In the first step,
the intended target is warned to stop collaborating with guerrillas. If
the person ignores the warning, he or she is told to leave the province.

the third step, well, you know what the third step is,” Mario said. “We
execute them.”

human rights groups said the paramilitaries’ arrival in the region was
facilitated by the 18th Brigade, which they said is using the illegal group
to supplement its own diminished presence.

    The rights
groups have reported killings near army posts and closely coordinated movements
between the brigade and the paramilitaries.

    But both
the paramilitaries and the military officials strongly deny any links in
interviews. Both groups pointed out that they have clashed on the battlefield,
leaving at least nine paramilitary soldiers dead this year.

said the only help his troops offer is indirect. Strikes against the guerrillas
aid the Colombian army in its effort to better protect the pipeline by
keeping the rebels occupied, he said.

    But Colombian
military officials said the presence of the paramilitaries has only complicated
efforts by stretching the army’s resources.

    The paramilitaries
“are a destabilizing factor that has increased violence,” the 18th Brigade’s
Lemus said. “Whereas before we had to fight against only two groups, now
we have to fight three.”

executives said they regret the violence and noted that the company recently
boosted its spending on social development programs in Colombia from $2
million to $3 million a year.

our opinion that the problem in Arauca, because of its size and complexity,
requires an integral solution” that involves both economic and social development,
said Juan Carlos Ucros, Occidental’s spokesman. Such a solution “will be
what finally permits an improvement to the reality the province is living

Emilio Torres, the official directly in charge of pipeline patrols, said
Colombia needs every dollar it can get to end its war.

our mission to protect the pipeline,” Torres said as dusk fell on the tiny
outpost and his men sallied out on patrols with night-vision goggles. “We
have to protect it.”

BACKGROUND: When oil was
discovered in 1983, Occidental Petroleum teamed up with the Colombian government
to develop the 1.3-billion-barrel Cano Limon oil field, located along the
border with Venezuela. A 483-mile-long pipeline was built to the coast.

VIOLENCE: The homicide rate
in Arauca province has soared since the Colombian army increased its protection
of the pipeline. Police statistics show that the province is on track this
year for about 160 killings per 100,000 people–more than double Colombia’s
already record-high rate of 64 homicides per 100,000.

Categories: Uncategorized

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.