Tensions Spark Over Ecuadorian Oil Attacks

December 19, 2000

Attacks on Ecuador's main oil infrastructure heightened tensions between the government in Quito and residents in Sucumbios province, home to the country's largest oil town, Lago Agrio, and several surrounding oil fields. The attacks may be an effort to prevent the construction of a new oil pipeline or to extort concessions from Quito. But the plan could backfire, sparking a government security crackdown in the region and prompting the growth of opposition groups willing to use terrorist tactics.


Eight people died Dec. 13 when an attack on Ecuador's main oil pipeline caused an explosion in Sucumbios province, a lawless swath of jungle in northeastern Ecuador that also serves as a key transport corridor for arms and goods to guerrillas in neighboring Colombia.

The bombing is one in a recent spate of incidents involving Ecuador's oil industry in and around Sucumbios province. In early October, 10 people were kidnapped from an oil exploration camp in Sucumbios. Two of the victims later turned up in Lago Agrio. A few weeks later, Ecuador's main oil pipeline, known as SOTE, was attacked at least twice. The pipeline transports oil from Lago Agrio – the country's largest oil town – in Sucumbios province to Balao, near Esmeraldas on Ecuador's Pacific coast.

Threats to the country's main oil infrastructure have heightened tensions in Sucumbios. Quito accused terrorists of perpetrating the attack, but no known terrorist groups operate in the region with the motivation to carry out the bombings. Nonetheless, the motive for the bombings may point to probable perpetrators.

The attacks may be a ploy to prevent construction of a new oil pipeline through Sucumbios or, at the very least, an effort to extort concessions from the government for the pipeline's construction. The attacks, which probably will move Quito to tighten security for the oil industry, could only strengthen the resolve of domestic opposition groups to use terrorist action.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the deadly Dec. 13 incident, speculation immediately pointed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). But the FARC is not likely to commit such an antagonistic act. It relies upon the region as a key transport corridor for arms and supplies flowing into the FARC-held territory of Putamayo in Colombia across the San Miguel River. Therefore, FARC would not want to stir up trouble and cut off one of its main supply routes.

Even the Colombian paramilitary group United Self-Defense forces (AUC) has a presence in Sucumbios, reportedly having bought land and watched the activities of visiting FARC members. But the AUC has more interest in maintaining a low profile in order to monitor FARC activities. It is not likely to want to attract attention from Quito either.

The oil pipeline bombing was more likely the work of local residents opposed to the construction of a new oil pipeline in Sucumbios. The country's large and politically powerful indigenous population opposes the construction of the pipeline.

In September, the indigenous movement – led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) – held a massive demonstration to protest Quito's agreement with the United States over Manta air force base and the privatization of the country's oil sector, Interpress reported Sept. 14. This well-organized movement's protests last January led to the ouster of former President Jamil Mahuad by a group of mid-level army officers.

In early October, about the same time as the kidnappings, the government of President Gustavo Noboa accepted final bids to build a 311-mile crude oil export pipeline from Lago Agrio to the Ecuadorian coast. One of the possible routes would be a parallel line following the SOTE, the Oil and Gas Journal reported Oct. 9.

But these groups are not known for violently attacking infrastructure. This new tactic may indicate the emergence of a more radical splinter group willing to engage in terrorist activity to prevent the development of the oil pipeline and further exploitation of Ecuador's jungles. And the heavy flow of arms in the Sucumbios region no doubt provides ample opportunity for a newly formed radical group to secure explosive material.

A new indigenous group of youths, calling itself the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Ecuador (FARE), has surfaced in the Sucumbios province. In May, Ecuador's military found what it believed to be a FARE jungle camp 60 miles east of Neuva Loja, the Miami Herald reported Nov. 18.

Captured members of the group claimed close ties to the Colombian FARC, but there is little reason for FARC to stir up trouble in an area it relies upon for trade. More likely, FARE is an extremist group of youths hoping to garner notoriety by aligning itself to the FARC. They may also be hoping to draw attention to the security problem in Sucumbios by claiming a spill-over caused by Plan Colombia.

Attacks on the SOTE could be a ploy to prevent construction of the new oil pipeline. They may also be a way for locals to extort more concessions from the government or investors, since it is common practice in Latin America for local communities to receive aid for schools, hospitals and other development projects when oil companies develop oil reserves near their communities.

Regardless of the motivations, however, the plan could easily backfire. Given the vital importance of the oil infrastructure, Quito will undoubtedly move to tighten security around oil installations. Heightened security could worsen relations between the government and local residents, thereby increasing the chances for more resistance to the new pipeline construction and possibly more terrorist activity.

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