Colombia facing oil pipeline attacks before presidential election

The head of the Colombian government delegation for peace talks with the FARC rebel group, Humberto de la Calle, right, and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo arrive for a new cycle of negotiations at the Conventions Palace in Havana.
(Ernesto Mastrascusa / European Pressphoto Agency)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Attacks by insurgents on Colombia’s oil pipelines and labor force could intensify before May’s presidential election and June’s 50th anniversary of the founding of the country’s largest rebel group, analysts said Friday.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, has been blamed for most previous bombings, which are seen as a brutal reminder of the rebels’ capabilities as peace negotiations with the government continue in Havana, said Orlando Hernandez, a Bogota-based security consultant with Agora Consultorias.

“It’s a way for the rebels to say they aren’t finished as a fighting force, contrary to what the government has been insisting since the talks started in 2012,” said Hernandez, a former Colombia National Police officer who advises multinational companies on security issues.

The attacks amount to a “cheap and effective way of pressuring the government at the negotiating table,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-director of the Medellin think tank InSight Crime, which tracks Colombian organized crime.


“The attacks are in keeping with [rebel] rhetoric against the foreign ‘pillaging’ of Colombia’s resources and also pressure companies, particularly subcontractors into paying extortion demands,” McDermott said.

On Thursday, officials at the state-controlled pipeline company Cenit confirmed that the newly completed $1.5-billion first phase of the Bicentennial Pipeline in eastern Colombia has been closed since Feb. 20 because of damage from bombings attributed to the FARC. The 140-mile pipeline has the capacity to move 10% of the nation’s crude production, estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to be 944,220 barrels per day.

The FARC was founded in June 1964. Although much weakened by recent battlefield successes of the U.S.-backed Colombian military, the rebels remain a potent force in some isolated jungle and mountain regions.

Compounding efforts to restart the Bicentennial line are blockades by members of the U’wa indigenous community who will not permit repair crews to enter an area of eastern Colombia until the government cleans up the environmental damage and sends more security, Hernandez said.

The blockade is one of a wave of protests in recent months by rural and indigenous groups over oil companies’ environmental damages, truck traffic on rural roads and hiring practices. The blockades have forced several oil fields to shut down, and they have impeded growth in Colombia’s oil production over the last two years.

Rebels have struck elsewhere in Colombia. In southern Putumayo province, attacks on the Transandino Pipeline and on several trailer trucks used to haul crude prompted the Defense Ministry to promise this week to send as many as 700 additional soldiers to the area to protect energy infrastructure and crews.

In an speech Wednesday at the annual Colombia Oil and Gas Conference in Cartagena, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon disclosed that drone aircraft have been patrolling the Putumayo region for six months to try to identify and locate attackers.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for Occidental Petroleum confirmed that a 500-mile pipeline that connects the Los Angeles-based oil company’s Caño Limon oil field in eastern Arauca province to offloading ports on the Caribbean is not pumping oil because of damages inflicted by bomb attacks.

President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his candidacy on the success of peace negotiations, the first between the government and the FARC since 2002. Although most Colombians support the talks, progress in Havana has been slow, and Santos has come under withering criticism from former President Alvaro Uribe and others for pursuing a negotiated settlement.

Santos faces several opponents, including former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa. A runoff is expected.

Kraul is a special correspondent.