BOGOTA, Colombia --
The Cano Limon oil pipeline, which snakes almost 500 miles across
northern Colombia, was once the focus of dreams for national prosperity.
But after years of sabotage bombings by leftist guerrillas, the pipeline
may serve instead as the trigger for wider U.S. involvement in Colombia's 36-
year civil war, some critics warn.
Earlier this month, the Bush administration announced it will ask Congress
for $98 million in the 2003 budget to train, arm and provide air support for
Colombian troops to defend the pipeline, which is jointly owned by the
Occidental Petroleum Corp., with headquarters in Los Angeles, and the
Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol.
Commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Simon Trinidad reads a declaration during a news conference in Los Pozos, Colombia, in this Jan. 13, 2002 photo. In a telephone interview, Trinidad said Wednesday Feb. 5, 2002, "From the beginning we said that Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency plan. No one believed the story that it was a plan against drug trafficking. Now the mask has been taken off." Bush administration officials, who ended a three-day visit to Colombia on Wednesday, announced plans Tuesday to train and arm Colombian troops to protect a key oil pipeline. (AP Photo)
The move marks a shift from previous U.S. policy of providing only military
aid, which was reserved almost exclusively for anti-narcotics operations.
U.S. officials say training a battalion of 1,000 men to guard a petroleum
pipeline is not part of the war on terrorism but rather an effort to preserve
Colombia's economy, which derives about one-third of its export earnings from
The pipeline is "important for the future of . . . our (U.S.) petroleum
supplies and the confidence of our investors," said U.S. Ambassador Anne
Patterson in a recent interview with the leading Bogota daily El Tiempo.
Critics, including community leaders in towns alongside the pipeline and
the guerrillas, say the shift will intensify the conflict in Colombia's oil-
"Plans for the United States to train an infrastructure protection
battalion will make the conflict in this region more acute," said Samuel
Morales, president of the Unitary Workers' Confederation in the town of
Saravena. "The infrastructure issue is a pretext and this is a clear
The pipeline began operation in 1986 and pumps around 110,000 barrels a day
of crude oil from the Cano Limon field, operated by Occidental in Arauca
province on the border with Venezuela, to the Caribbean coastal town of
The 2-foot-diameter tube, buried for much of its length at depths of 6 feet,
has been a favored target for Colombia's two largest leftist rebel forces,
which accuse foreign multinational firms of "plundering" the nation's natural
Rebels Target Pipeline
Last year, guerrillas blew up sections of the pipeline 170 times, putting
it out of operation for 266 days. This year it has been bombed 15 times
already. Since 1986, there have been more than 900 such incidents and a loss
of some 2.5 million barrels of crude -- more than nine times the amount of the
Exxon Valdez spill.
Although Cano Limon is an alternative source of oil for the United States,
its total production hardly qualifies it to be considered strategically
In 2001, Colombia produced 600,000 barrels a day and its exports accounted
for less than 2 percent of total U.S. oil needs. Even within Occidental's
worldwide portfolio, the Cano Limon field comprises less than 5 percent of its
But oil is essential to the health of Colombia's economy. The government
estimated that last year's record bombing campaign against the pipeline shaved
half a percentage point off the gross domestic product.
The Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's second-
largest rebel force, began its offensive against the pipeline even before it
was built, demanding multimillion-dollar payoffs to allow the project to be
completed ahead of schedule.
More recently, the far larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
has taken the lead in bombings, apparently in an effort to back its own hefty
"We have been told to bomb at will and keep the pipeline out of action,"
said a FARC fighter, who gave his name only as Javier, outside a town close to
Javier said he and his team, traveling on motorbikes or bicycles, plant 25-
pound bombs made of dynamite and a fertilizer mixture -- a low-tech device
that is cheap to produce but extremely effective.
In a 1993 document, the FARC leadership laid out its demands for state
ownership and control of strategic economic sectors, including the oil
industry, and asked that contracts with multinational companies be rescinded
or renegotiated. The ELN maintains a similar stance.
FARC commanders have predictably condemned the new U.S. proposal.
"This is one of a series of measures to increase American involvement in
Colombia's war," said Andres Paris, a member of the FARC negotiating team
involved in peace talks with the government. "The best way of protecting oil
is to develop and protect the state oil sector."
Former U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette rejects such arguments. He believes
Washington wants to broaden its focus beyond counter-narcotics to prop up the
fragile central government, which has been unable to prevent the rebel armies
from gaining control of about 40 percent of the country.
"It's not exactly counterinsurgency," he said. "But either with or without
American help, Colombia must extend the authority and presence of the state."
Using troops to protect Colombia's energy infrastructure is nothing new.
Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the army's total combat force is said to
be deployed alongside oil pipelines and other key facilities.
Foreign oil companies, including Occidental and BP-Amoco, make regular
contributions for their own protection through donations to the Finance
Ministry that are then channeled to the military.
But as last year's surge in pipeline attacks demonstrates, their largesse
has produced few results.