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CHAOS IN COLOMBIA

Blood Spills to Keep Oil Wealth Flowing

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

September 15, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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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.

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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.

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