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Helping Colombia Help an Oil Company

23 February 2002

"The essence of lying is in deception, not in words." John Ruskin, Modern Painters

The interesting thing about it is that it just gets in the news a little bit at a time. Never enough to be truly alarming, but enough to let you know that the relationship is progressing. If it were a he and a she about whom we were learning, we would expect a marriage in the not too distant future. It's not and we needn't, at least so they would have us believe. All we need to know is that it's not really a serious relationship, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. It's Colombia and the United States we're talking about.

In July of 2000 Congress passed and President Clinton signed, a bill giving Colombia $1.7 billion in military aid. A variety of helicopters was delivered and Colombian army personnel were to be trained in the United States so that they could more effectively fight the drug traffickers.

In January 2001 we learned that more than 65,000 acres, out of an estimated 300,000 acres, in Colombia dedicated to growing coca, had been sprayed with glyphosate products. Farmers in the Valley of Guamuez in northwestern Putumayo said that the spraying destroyed legal crops like plantains and yucca along with coca. According to Carlos Alberto Palacios, Secretary of Human Development in the town of La Hormiga: "We believe people will go hungry. They've fumigated everything, fields and plantain rows and yucca and everything that people need to live on." He didn't mention the part of the spraying that had been successful.

On Jan. 15, we were told that the Bush administration was considering expanding counter-narcotics assistance to give Colombia more aid in its counterinsurgency war against guerrillas. By February the proposals had become concrete. Mr. Bush's fiscal 2003 budget asks for $98 million in new Pentagon training and equipment for the Colombian military. This is over and above the request of $731 million in Andean regional assistance to continue anti-drug aid programs and comes from military financing funds. The money will be used to train troops and provide 12 transport helicopters to the "Critical Infrastructure Brigade." That brigade has nothing to do with the war on drugs. It has to do with a pipeline that is 480 miles long and transports oil from fields in northeastern Colombia to the Caribbean coast. Leftist guerilla groups managed to keep it shut down for most of 2001.

One administration spokesman meeting with reporters in Bogota said the obvious when he said: "We are not saying this is counter-drug this is different. The proposition we are making to the government of Colombia and to our Congress is that we ought to take an additional step." On Feb. 13, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified in favor of giving Colombia about $100 million in military support to protect the pipeline. When asked whether the United States had moved beyond a role in support of Colombian counter narcotics efforts to direct involvement in government-supported counterinsurgency activities, Mr. Powell said that the U.S. had not crossed the line. "I think it's a close line. I don't think it's quite into counterinsurgency to the extent that they're not using this investment and this new capability to go running into the jungles looking for the insurgents, but essentially protect a unique facility" he said. The unique facility belongs to Occidental Petroleum Corp.

According to a report prepared by Drill Bits and Tailing, an electronic journal on the mining and oil industries, Occidental has been lobbying for increased U.S. military aid since 1996 when it helped to found the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership which is a coalition of multinational energy companies. One in four Colombian soldiers is currently devoted to protecting oil installations. Occidental estimates that 3 percent of its in-country budget is spent on security costs. It would like to have the U.S. start paying for that and in some respects, that might not be a completely bad idea. It might help avoid incidents such as the 1998 Santo Domingo massacre.

According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, that misadventure occurred when security forces hired by Occidental Petroleum to protect oil operations, coordinated an air attack on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) , a left-wing guerrilla group. Santo Domingo is in oil-rich northeast Arauca province. The security forces marked targets and directed helicopter gun ships that were trying to hunt down a 200-strong column of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. They missed. Instead of hitting the column, the gun ships killed residents of Santo Domingo who ran out of their homes with their hands in the air to show they were noncombatants. Eighteen civilians, including nine children, were killed.

It might also help avoid other problems. Occidental has been engaged in exploratory drilling on the ancestral homeland of the U'wa, an indigenous community of 5,000 who live in the northeastern province of Colombia. The U'wa have been peacefully resisting oil exploration since 1992. In 2000 Occidental called on Colombian military and riot police to break up a nonviolent road blockade of the road leading to a drill site. When the road was opened by the authorities, three indigenous children were dead and scores were reportedly injured. If forces led by Americans had helped, maybe no one would have died.

Upon learning of the administration's newest proposal to help the Colombians help Occidental, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who is chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said: "This is no longer about stopping drugs. It's about fighting the guerrillas." Mr. Leahy may be right. He should check his mail. He may find himself invited to a wedding before he knows it.

Christopher R. Brauchli
Published in the Boulder Daily Camera © Christopher R. Brauchli

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