Chaos in Colombia: Blood Spills to Keep Oil Wealth Flowing
Published on Sunday, September 15, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
Chaos in Colombia
Blood Spills to Keep Oil Wealth Flowing
by T. Christian Miller

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.

Civilians 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.

Hundreds 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.

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

"Here, 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.

Until 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.

Critics 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 forces.

U.S. 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.

U.S. 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 Brigade.

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.

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

"Tell 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?"

Arauca 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 violence.

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.

Broad 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.

Then, 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 subcontractors.

That's 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 royalties.

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.

"The 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.

Occidental 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 2001.

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.

U.S. 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.

Occidental 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 terrorists.

"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."

Meanwhile, 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 bomb-makers.

Within 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.

Nonetheless, 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 guerrillas.

"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.

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

Arauca's 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.

That 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.

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

"People 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 capital.

They 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.

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

Mario 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.

"And the third step, well, you know what the third step is," Mario said. "We execute them."

Local 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.

Mario 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."

Occidental 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.

"It's 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 today."

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

"It's 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."

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times