October 4, 2002

New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting
a Vital Oil Pipeline


SARAVENA, Colombia, Sept.
27 ˜ Casting a wary eye for rebel snipers, Lt. Felipe Zúñiga
and his counterinsurgency troops slog through the wet fields and patches
of jungle here. Their mission has nothing to do with drugs ˜ until now,
the defining issue in Colombia for American policy makers ˜ but instead
with protecting a pipeline that carries crude to an oil-hungry America.

    The 500-mile
pipeline, which snakes through eastern Colombia, transporting 100,000 barrels
of oil a day for Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles, is emerging as a
new front in the terror war. One of Colombia’s most valuable assets, the
pipeline has long been vulnerable to bombings by Colombia’s guerrilla groups,
which along with the country’s paramilitary outfits are included on the
Bush administration’s list of terrorist organizations.

in the next month, in a significant shift in American policy, United States
Special Forces will arrive in Colombia to begin laying the groundwork for
the training of Lieutenant Zúñiga and his 35-man squad in
the finer arts of counterinsurgency. Over the next two years, 10 American
helicopters will bolster the Colombian counterinsurgency efforts, and some
4,000 more troops will receive American training, which will begin in earnest
in January, Bush administration and American military officials said in
interviews in recent days.

    The policy
shift dovetails with the Bush administration’s new, global emphasis on
expanding and diversifying the sources of America’s oil imports, with an
eye to reducing dependence on Middle Eastern oil. That new approach, outlined
in the administration’s energy report issued last year, is gaining ever
more importance with the threat to Persian Gulf oil supplies from the looming
war with Iraq.

    The $94
million counterinsurgency program is also an important element in the offensive
by Colombia’s new government against two rebel groups and a paramilitary
force that dominate much of the country.

bombings by the guerrillas cost the government nearly $500 million last
year ˜ a blow in a country where oil accounts for 25 percent of revenues.
The two main rebel groups, which view Occidental as a symbol of American
imperialism, have bombed the pipeline 948 times since the 1980’s, while
extorting oil royalty payments from local government officials.

    The Colombian
military has increased security recently, deploying five of the six battalions
in the 6,000-man 18th Brigade to pipeline protection, up from just two
battalions last year. As a result, the number of bombings has fallen to
30 this year, from 170 the year before, Colombian military officials say.
But the goal is to eliminate the bombings altogether, they say, and to
accomplish that they need help.

    “We have
been fighting here, but there are still so many things the Americans can
teach us,” said Lieutenant Zúñiga as he led a reporter on
patrol along the pipeline. “I think it is going to make us much better.”

    The final
product, officials say, will be an offensive-minded unit of Colombian counterinsurgency
analysts who will interpret intelligence data gathered from high-tech equipment
and informers and then deploy rapid-response forces stationed at strategic
points along the pipeline to thwart rebel attacks.

idea is to prepare troops for the war we are living,” said Gen. Carlos
Lemus, commander of the 18th Brigade, which will receive much of the training
here in Arauca Province. “We will be able to do so much more, with better
intelligence and helicopters. The idea is to find out when something is
going to happen and react.”

    The training
could not take place in a more dangerous area. Though the army base here
˜ with its neatly pruned hedges, modern barracks and billboard featuring
the fighting words of Gen. George S. Patton ˜ gives an air of familiarity
American soldiers might find comforting, Saravena itself sits in a war

they can expect is lead,” boasted a local commander for the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest and most belligerent rebel
group. “What else? That and cadavers.”

the rebels have flexed their muscles all year in Saravena, launching dozens
of homemade rockets that have destroyed the airport terminal, the city
hall, the town council chambers and the prosecutor’s office. Policemen
on patrol are frequently fired upon, and military officials say that despite
the new deployment of Colombian troops the pipeline is still exposed to

these bandits,” said Lt. Col. Emilio Torres, a local army commander, “if
you leave the pipeline alone even 24 hours, they can blow the tube.”

to the dangers, American military officials said the trainers, Special
Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C., will be limited to 20 to 60 and
will be housed in specially fortified barracks.

Colombia’s new president, Álvaro Uribe, also declared Arauca one
of two security zones where military commanders can conduct searches without
warrants, impose curfews and usurp some powers from local government ˜
measures the United Nations says will erode civil rights.

administration officials have said the reliable production of oil is imperative
if Colombia is to have the resources to combat the guerrillas and paramilitaries.
But oil is also critical to the national security planning of the United
States, which by 2020 will count on imported oil for 62 percent of its
oil needs, up from half today.

of that new oil will come from the Americas, which already supply the United
States with nearly 50 percent of its imported oil. Along with Venezuela
and Ecuador, the Andes now provides the United States with more than two
million barrels a day, about 20 percent of its imports.

will never be the sole solution to America’s voracious appetite for oil.
But the country is known for high-quality oil that is cheap to produce
and easy to refine, and is thought to have significant potential reserves
that could be rapidly exploited if the guerrillas and paramilitaries could
be brought under control.

becoming increasingly dependent on imported oil, therefore the strategic
goal of diversification has become more and more important,” said Michael
Klare, author of “Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict.”
“The Clinton administration and now the Bush administration have explicitly
stated that that one of the regions they have wanted to rely on in the
future is the Western Hemisphere.”

oil analysts say reliance on this region could greatly increase if the
major producer, Venezuela, increased its production capacity and if Colombia
˜ which shares many of the same geological features as Venezuela ˜ achieved
enough stability to allow widespread exploration.

don’t really know what’s there,” said Ed Corr, a former American diplomat
in Latin America and an expert on the strategic aspects of petroleum. “But
we certainly would be wise in getting the country in such a situation where
we can find out.”

shift to counterinsurgency was made possible in July, when Congress rolled
back restrictions that had limited American aid to antidrug programs. The
drug war continues unabated, but the phasing out of those prohibition has
been warmly welcomed by energy companies, which have been pressing for
a wider role for the United States to improve the business climate.

see more interest on the part of more companies,” Larry Meriage, spokesman
for Occidental, said in an interview. “Given the fact that there is a significant
amount of oil there, and the sheer mass of oil that remains under-explored,
there is considerable optimism.”

well-versed in Colombia’s troubles by virtue of its two decades here, is
close to the Bush administration and has long lobbied for the United States
to be more involved in the conflict.

to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, the company contributed
$1.5 million to presidential and Congressional campaigns between 1995 and
2000. Occidental also spent nearly $8.7 million lobbying American officials
on Latin America policy, largely regarding Colombia, from 1996 to 2000,
according to disclosure forms filed with Congress.

oil and energy companies also spent handsomely to influence Colombia policy,
with Exxon Mobil Corporation, BP Amoco, the Unocal Corporation, Texaco
and Phillips Petroleum spending about $13 million among them on Colombia
in the same period.

    “We see
the oil companies leveraging their influence in Washington to move the
United States toward a counterinsurgency policy,” said Ted Lewis of Global
Exchange, a San Francisco human rights group that closely follows business
issues here.

    Mr. Meriage
counters that not taking strong action here could further weaken Colombia
and its neighbors, which are economically dependent on oil. “We have long
highlighted these problems,” he said. “You see the potential danger of
an entire Andean region being destabilized by the problems in Colombia.
That’s why this is important.”

    A tour
of the Occidental facilities here in Caño Limón oil fields
underscores the links between the company and Colombia’s military. The
300 or so troops stationed here wear patches featuring an oil drilling
rig. New motorcycle patrols zip down a network of roads, while antiguerrilla
patrols work their way through the jungle. Light tanks and heavily fortified
bunkers are strategically positioned along the pipeline to deter attacks.

    Two military
aircraft ˜ a helicopter and a Cessna ˜ patrol the pipeline with gasoline
paid for by Occidental, and military helicopters carrying troops on operations
often swing by here to fill their fuel tanks. Even the brigade commander,
General Lemus, drinks coffee from a mug bearing the Oxy logo.

is an island of security that we have here, thanks to the army,” said one
Occidental official.

    The company
is now producing nearly twice as much oil as last year at its 212 wells.
It has also signed contracts recently with the state oil company to explore
three additional blocs covering 9,325 square miles.

is the Colombians’ war to win, and they have to step up to the fight,”
said Brig. Gen. Galen Jackman, director of operations for American forces
in Latin America. “And they have to put their country on a footing to be
able to do that.”