Fw: [R-G] New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting a Vital Oil Pipeline
mstainsby at tao.ca
Fri Oct 4 17:25:14 MDT 2002
NYT October 4, 2002
New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting a Vital Oil Pipeline
By JUAN FORERO
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
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.
Sometime 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.
Pipeline 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
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
"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.
"The 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 zone.
"What 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."
Indeed, 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 attack.
"With 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."
Alert 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
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.
Bush 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.
Much 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.
Colombia 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.
"We're 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."
Many 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.
"We 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."
Washington's shift to counterinsurgency was made possible
in July, when Congress rolled back restrictions that had
limited American aid toantidrug 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.
"You'll 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."
Occidental, 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.
According 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
Other 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.
"This 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.
"This 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
More information about the Rad-Green