by Garry M. Leech
December 9, 2002
In January 2003, up to 100 U.S. army Special Forces will arrive in Colombia to provide counterinsurgency training to Colombian troops. The U.S. soldiers are being dispatched as part of a $94 million counterterrorism aid package intended to protect an oil pipeline used by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. The September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States have allowed the Bush administration to escalate the U.S. military role in Colombia to previously unimaginable levels under the guise of the war against terrorism. The posting of U.S. troops to a mostly rebel-controlled region will dramatically increase the possibility of U.S. soldiers being killed. Such an occurrence would then provide the Bush administration with the justification it needs to directly involve U.S. combat troops in the war against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas.
A handful of U.S. Special Forces are already on the ground in the department of Arauca preparing the local Colombian army base in the town of Saravena for the arrival of up to 100 more U.S. troops. Saravena, which is located on the remote Colombia-Venezuela border, has been the target of more rebel bombing and mortar attacks—more than 60 so far this year—than any other Colombian town. The region is a stronghold of Colombia’s largest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the Army of National Liberation (ELN).
The Colombian army’s 18th Brigade is responsible for conducting counterinsurgency operations in Arauca and protecting the 478-mile-long Caño Limón oil pipeline. Local paramilitary units belonging to the Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) have also moved into the region over the past couple of years, during which time they have worked closely with the army to combat the guerrillas.
It is into this quagmire that the U.S. Special Forces will arrive in January as part of the latest escalation of the global war against terrorism. They will be stationed in an army base that was attacked as recently as September when guerrillas fired ten mortars at the installation. This rebel attack followed on the heels of two other mortar strikes against Saravena’s police station that were carried out in broad daylight. Clearly, the U.S. troops will be situated on the front lines of Colombia’s escalating conflict and it is only a matter of time, if the rebels choose to target them, before there are U.S. casualties.
By the time oil was discovered in Arauca and the Caño Limón pipeline was completed in 1985, the ELN had established itself as the region’s dominant armed group. For the most part, the rebels refrained from bombing the pipeline as long as local municipalities and businesses paid their “war taxes.” But in the late 1990s, the FARC entered the region to target the pipeline, which was bombed 170 times in 2001. As a result, Occidental Petroleum lost more than $75 million in oil revenues last year.
In September, President Alvaro Uribe established two Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones in northern Colombia, one of which includes Arauca. Military rule has superseded civilian rule in the region and the army is now authorized to control the movement of people in and out of the zone and conduct searches without warrants. There is so far no evidence that the new measures have diminished guerrilla operations, they have, however, affected the lives of the local population.
By detaining increasing numbers of citizens and restricting the flow of legal goods that are used in the processing of cocaine, including gasoline and cement, the military has exacerbated the already difficult living conditions endured by the region’s impoverished peasants. The military crackdown has already resulted in a 150 percent increase in the cost of gasoline, a fuel that is essential for transporting goods in and out of this remote corner of Colombia. The government’s policies have left one local resident wondering what is worse, “The illness or the medicine to cure it.”
Uribe’s authoritarian measures are a continuation of U.S.-devised counterinsurgency tactics intended to “eliminate the fish by draining the sea.” The government is not only using detentions and economic controls in an attempt to curb rebel activities in the region, it is also colluding with right-wing paramilitary death squads responsible for 70 percent of the 420 political killings in the vicinity of Arauca City this year. Commander Freddy, the leader of an ACCU paramilitary unit known as the Arauca Vanquishers Block, admitted that his group has the same agenda as the army, “We are living in a state of war with the guerrillas; we are not here to combat the state.”
According to human rights groups, the army maintains a similar philosophy as it fights the rebels, but not the paramilitaries, who, like the Colombian military, have a history of defending the interests of multinational corporations operating in Colombia. While the commander of the Colombian army’s 18th Brigade, General Carlos Lemus, denies any collusion between his troops and local paramilitary units, it is clear that his brigade’s interests are aligned with both those of the right-wing death squads and Occidental Petroleum.
General Lemus commands his troops from behind a desk in an office inundated with souvenirs bearing the name of the oil company whose pipeline it is his mission to protect. Furthermore, when this writer requested permission to accompany an army patrol that was preparing to respond to a rebel attack against the pipeline, the general said that such a request would have to be approved by Occidental officials.
Clearly, the U.S.-backed Colombian army is operating as though it were the private security force of Occidental Petroleum, the principal benefactor of the most recent U.S. taxpayer subsidization of a U.S. corporation’s risky foreign business investment. As a result of the new $94 million counterterrorism aid package, U.S. taxpayers are paying $3.70 in security costs for every barrel of Occidental oil that flows through the Caño Limón pipeline. This figure contrasts sharply with the 50 cents per barrel that the oil company is currently contributing to its own security costs.
With the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, Colombia has become an important alternative source of oil. Even though the United States currently receives only three percent of its oil from Colombia, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson admitted, “With problems in other countries, each percentage is important.” However, Washington is ensuring the continued flow of Occidental's oil by using U.S. taxpayer dollars to train a military that is closely-allied with right-wing paramilitaries on the State Department's foreign terrorist list. But this seems to be of little concern to the Bush administration, which is using its selective war on terrorism to justify the implementation of this massive corporate welfare program.
On the ground in Arauca, U.S. troops will have to contend with more than just the military strength of the guerrillas if they are to help the Colombian army protect the oil interests of George W. Bush and his financial backers. According to Saravena Mayor Jorge Sierra, the rebels also have substantial local support in Arauca. The mayor’s sentiments were echoed by Saravena’s police commander, Major Joaquin Enrique Aldana, who begrudgingly admitted, “The people here love the guerrillas. They care for them. They lend them their houses so they can shoot at us.”
It is clear that the rebels possess the military strength and popular support to effectively target the U.S. Special Forces that will be based in Arauca. The killing of U.S. soldiers by guerrillas on the State Department’s foreign terrorist list would provide the White House with the justification it needs to send combat troops to Colombia in order to protect U.S. economic interests. In the cases of both Colombia and Iraq, the war on terrorism has provided President Bush with the opportunity to serve the interests of the energy companies that funded his campaign, while at the same time ensuring the continued flow of cheap oil to the United States.
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org