U.S. Plan Aims to Stem Pipeline's Flow of Trouble


By Ruth Morris

Los Angeles Times
February 6, 2002

White House proposes $98-million aid package to help Bogota combat rebel attacks on Cano Limon artery.

It may have been the damp in the earth seeping into the bomb, or a faulty connection. Alex Ramirez is convinced it was the five amulets he wears around his neck. But for some reason, when he stepped on a rebel land mine three months ago, he survived the blast.

"The lights went out. I couldn't see or hear anything," the 25-year-old bomb expert recalled. "It felt as if I had something on my face. I thought it was blood, but it was oil."

As a member of a six-person anti-explosives army unit that patrols Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s Cano Limon pipeline here, Ramirez has signed up for one of the most dangerous jobs in Colombia: protecting oil shipments to the United States. For nearly two decades, Cano Limon has been a target of leftist guerrillas, who have blown so many holes in the Atlantic-bound pipeline that locals call it "the flute." With the pipeline's output reduced to a trickle by 13 blasts this year alone, the Bush administration stepped into the fray this week, unveiling a $98-million budget request to help the Colombian army thwart the attacks.

The plan would probably involve surveillance equipment and helicopter support, senior Bush administration officials said, and could take U.S. military assistance to a new level in Colombia's bloody 38-year civil war.

Until now, the U.S. has limited military assistance to Colombia's war on drugs, steering clear of direct involvement in what many consider a dead-end power struggle among Marxist rebels--most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC--ultra-right paramilitary groups and the government.

"We're not saying this is counter-narcotics funding. It's not. It's different," said an administration official who visited Bogota, the Colombian capital, as part of a U.S. delegation Tuesday. "The proposition that we are making to the government of Colombia, and to our Congress, is that we ought to take an additional step."

Other U.S. officials said the budget request is merely part of the United States' broader effort to foster democracy and the rule of law in Colombia.

In Washington, State Department official Curt Struble said the rebel attacks, by closing down the pipeline for 243 days last year, had "a very significant impact on Colombian exports" and on the government's ability to generate money needed for economic growth.

In a briefing with reporters, he said the United States can legitimately help the Colombian military for "specific missions and objectives," as it already does in trying to fight narcotics traffic and kidnapping.

Colombian military officers in the field said their troops would welcome U.S. aid, but they noted that the Cano Limon pipeline, which serves Los Angeles-based Occidental, traverses 480 miles of wild frontier and is virtually indefensible without improved surveillance techniques. The pipeline is Colombia's second-largest and has a capacity to pump 240,000 barrels a day--when it's functioning.

Along the Venezuelan border where the pipeline begins, for instance, cattle rustlers and drug traffickers operate alongside three rebel fronts and the fiercely independent Uwa tribe. The region is such a tinderbox of illicit activity that local police can barely venture from their station houses without risking an ambush.

For the army troops patrolling the Cano Limon, the odds aren't much better.

"I know right now the enemy is close," Capt. Harold Rodriguez said as his counterinsurgency troops fanned into the sun-scorched pastures surrounding the site of a recent pipeline blast. "They either launch gas cylinders at us, or mine the area, or ambush us. Sometimes they blow up the tube just to lure us in."

Working nearby, Ramirez's anti-explosives crew crouched close to the ground, gingerly lifting clods of dirt on knife edges. The trip wires the team looks for are so thin, he said, there isn't enough light to see them after 4 p.m.

The pipeline's unique and hazardous work conditions also make for extremely fast repairs. Once an area is secured, engineers, cooks and laborers are whisked in by helicopter and usually have the pipeline working again within 13 hours.

"I'm not trained for this," chief engineer Alvaro Betancur said, referring to rebel ambushes that sometimes await his repair crews. Since his team came under fire during a job late last year, he added, "I think about my family. It makes me feel like throwing in the towel sometimes."

The rebels' bombing campaign, which has escalated during a critical phase in peace talks with the government, has raised huge environmental and financial concerns too. Government figures show that 2.5 million barrels of spilled Cano Limon crude have oozed into Colombia's rivers and ranges during the last 15 years--about 10 times the volume of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

Cattle drinking from the poisoned streams lose weight, locals say, while spills have clogged and blackened pristine swimming holes.

What's more, the cash-strapped Colombian government has an 85% stake in Cano Limon's output, and lost production is costing it hundreds of millions of dollars. The idling of the pipeline for two-thirds of 2001 led to a budget shortfall of nearly $500 million.

"The breeze brings this smell of oil, and it gives me a headache," said Otilia Espitia, the owner of a small farm near the pipeline. Espitia said she didn't mind the swarm of soldiers who were camped out among canary cages and laundry lines in her front yard, but she worried that her well water would be contaminated as the ground absorbed a gooey black slick forming just 50 feet away. She also pointed to several cracks along the walls of her home as testimony to earlier bomb blasts.

"I'd like to leave this area, but no one will buy this land," she said.

Downstream from Espitia's home, in the fishing hamlet of Puerto Lleras, every canoe was ringed by a strip of crude.

"We haven't been able to fish for two weeks, because the nets get ruined with the oil," catfish vendor Ciro Antonio Agudelo said as he scrubbed down his boat. Asked if he was angry with the rebels for causing the pollution, he glanced sideways before replying, "What does it achieve to get angry?"

"The FARC are looking for peace--in quotation marks--but they're making war," Lt. Col. Emilio Enrique Torres said of the tired peace process between the rebels and government negotiators, now in its third year. As the head of the 49th Battalion, which has lost 63 men trying to safeguard the pipeline, Torres is accompanied by a soldier carrying an automatic rifle every morning as he jogs around his barracks.

Torres said the FARC is displaying its military might ahead of an April 7 deadline to set terms for a cease-fire agreement. Besides hitting the pipeline, FARC fighters have toppled electricity pylons, knocked out bridges and parked bicycle bombs on busy city streets in an effort to tie the country's infrastructure in knots.

"They want to weaken the state and impose their own conditions at the [peace] table," Torres said. However, he stopped short of ruling out a secondary, financial motive.

The rebels have long sought a dialogue with Occidental managers, presumably to arrange for the company to pay them "vaccines," or extortion payments. Occidental insists that it will never acquiesce to such demands.

Farther downriver, Arauca, the capital of Arauca state, is also reeling from the pipeline sabotage. Local officials rely heavily on oil royalties to meet budget demands, so every new round of bombings translates into salary freezes for teachers and layoffs for construction workers.

"Arauca is dead. The oil has been lost," grocer Fredy Rodrigo Tovar said as he served cold sodas to customers. "First there was unemployment, and now people are robbing to eat."

Like others, Tovar complained that revenue from the region's "black gold" had mostly lined the pockets of corrupt politicians. The city abounds with white-elephant building projects, such as a flooded velodrome for bicycle races, known locally as "the monument to cement."

Yet the local hospital has no money to maintain its ambulances. All three are out of service.

"We were unprepared," former Gov. Hector Federico Gallardo said. "If you're poor and uneducated and you win the biggest lottery in history, you won't administer the money well."

Speaking privately, locals say that the rebels have been plundering regional government coffers too, pressing officials to use contractors with guerrilla links and methodically "taxing" government-sponsored projects.

With or without U.S. military aid to protect the Cano Limon pipeline, they say, it is unclear how the Colombian government can cut off Arauca's entrenched rebel factions from millions of dollars in oil revenue. Until the government takes on the task, Arauca's residents are likely to remain as impoverished as ever.

Back at the Cano Limon field, an officer who requested anonymity waved toward a wall of oil barrels painted in camouflage, forming a barricade around a small statue of the Virgin Mary.

"I have her well protected," he said. "But as long as a young guy is hungry, [he'll join the rebels] and come after you. If there were more schools, more roads, more jobs, we wouldn't have to be here."

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