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Riding Shotgun on a Pipeline

Going beyond the war on drugs, the U.S. backs Colombian troops in a campaign against rebels that protects an oil company's operations.

May 16, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

"This isn't about corporate welfare, it's not about protecting Oxy," the State Department official said. "It's a security argument, not a U.S. economic interests argument."

Although Oxy has benefited, it neither pushed for the pipeline protection nor helped in the planning, company officials said.

"The Colombian government was far and away the primary beneficiary," said Larry Meriage, the company's chief spokesman. "But there's no question that better conditions in Arauca would be better for us."

The perception among many in Colombia is that Washington stepped in to benefit a U.S. company, and that has raised cries of Yankee imperialism.

Critics of the program question why the State Department recommended funding to protect only Oxy's pipeline -- not a pipeline carrying oil from British-owned BP or pipelines controlled by Colombia's state-run oil company, Ecopetrol. State Department officials respond that BP's pipeline is not attacked frequently, and that Ecopetrol's pipeline generates only a fraction of the revenue that the Oxy pipeline does.

"The cost doesn't matter, whether it's blood or money," said Oscar Garcia, a local union leader for Oxy workers. "The U.S. is not going to allow a shortage of oil."

The Rebels That Oil Built

Arauca's natural beauty is stunning. The Andes soar to the west, a saw blade of black and purple in the equatorial sunlight. The province unfolds to the east as a swampy grassland dotted with villages and towns.

A land of cattle, prairie and not much else, the province was long forgotten by the national government in Bogota, high in the Andes. There were no roads, no electricity and few bridges across the many rivers that laced the plains.

Then came the oil.

In 1983, Occidental discovered one of the world's biggest oil fields, Cano Limon, which held about 1.3 billion barrels of high-value medium crude.

Money generated by the oil field flows not only to Oxy and the Colombian government, but also back to Arauca. The province received $60 million to $80 million a year in royalties, suddenly making one of the country's poorest provinces into the wealthiest per capita.

Not much wound up in the hands of locals. But those riches became a treasure chest for the ELN rebel group, an organization whose Spanish initials stand for the National Liberation Army.

The ELN, a small army of about 3,000 fighters created in 1964, was inspired by Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba a few years earlier. But by the early 1980s, the Colombian army had almost wiped it out.

Then Occidental and the pipeline contractor began funneling money, jobs and food to the group to buy its cooperation, according to Colombian law enforcement and locals who participated in some of the deals. It is estimated, all told, that millions flowed to the ELN in the early years of operations.

The rebels used the money to gain new recruits and weaponry. In effect, Occidental rescued the group that later turned against it. Oxy today denies acceding to any extortion demands.

Arauca became a haven for the ELN. There were ELN mayors, ELN journalists -- even ELN priests. The rebels extorted money from local merchants. They skimmed government contracts. And they bombed the pipeline, taking a cut from the crews that went in to repair it.

Average citizens of Arauca usually cooperated with the rebels, out of either sympathy or fear of being killed.

"They were like kings," said one man, who was summoned to a meeting with the guerrillas after receiving a government contract to print a newsletter. "They would sit there and receive people one by one."

The ELN is not Colombia's only rebel group. In the late 1990s, the largest rebel army, also founded in 1964 and known as the FARC -- the Spanish initials for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- also waded into the local mix. Funded by the exploding cocaine market, it expanded into Arauca, taking over the countryside while the ELN held on to the cities.

As the two groups clashed, the FARC stepped up attacks on the pipeline in 2001. Each time it bombed the pipeline, it shut down the ELN's main funding source and weakened the rival rebel group.

The ELN's attacks had rarely stopped production. Oxy continued pumping, storing the oil in tanks until the pipeline was repaired. But the FARC's fierce onslaught, with a bombing on average about every two days, forced Oxy to halt production for 240 days in 2001.

By the end of that year, the ELN had had enough, said a source with close ties to a former Arauca governor and to the guerrillas. The two rebel groups reached an accord. The pipeline attacks would continue, but not at levels high enough to hamper mutual extortion profits.

Oxy's statistics show that by January 2002, the number of attacks was dropping dramatically.

A New Direction

A few months later, Colombia and the U.S. began their effort to reassert control over Arauca.

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