The Battle for Saravena

The culmination of two significant events during the past 18 months has dramatically transformed U.S. policy in Colombia. First, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States have allowed the Bush administration to escalate its military involvement in Colombia as part of the evolving global war on terror. And second, the election of Colombia’s hard-line presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe last May has provided the White House with an ally willing to intensify the war against Colombia’s two principal leftist guerrilla groups—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—that are on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). These developments have led to the deployment of 70 U.S. army Special Forces troops to one of the most hotly contested parts of Colombia to help the Colombian army combat the guerrillas and protect U.S. economic interests in the region.

In September 2002, one month after his inauguration, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced the creation of two Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones. These zones signified a military escalation by Bogotá in important economic regions of the country. One of the zones was established in the eastern plains of Arauca and encompassed the section of the 478-mile long Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline most frequently bombed by the guerrillas. Under the presidential decree that established the rehabilitation zone, the military was authorized to conduct searches and make arrests without warrants, restrict the movement of civilians, and prevent foreign journalists from entering the zones. Uribe’s decree also endowed military commanders with authority that superseded the rule of local elected officials.

The establishment of the rehabilitation zones followed on the heels of the Bush administration’s proposed $98 million counterterrorism aid package intended to protect the oil pipeline jointly-owned and operated by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil company. The aid package calls for U.S. Army Special Forces troops to provide counterinsurgency training to Colombian soldiers responsible for protecting the pipeline from rebel attacks.

The new aid signifies a military escalation by Washington as the Bush administration has merged the drug war with its new global war on terrorism. Prior to September 11, 2001, Congress had restricted U.S. military involvement in Colombia to providing training and equipment for counternarcotics operations, primarily in the principal coca growing regions of southern Colombia. But following the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., President Bush succeeded in having the restrictions lifted, allowing the U.S.-trained troops and U.S.-supplied Blackhawk and Huey helicopters to now be used by the Colombian army in counterinsurgency operations.

Six million dollars of the new aid has already been allocated for the deployment of troops from the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group to begin counterinsurgency training in Arauca. The remaining $88 million will constitute part of the 2003 budget and will provide for additional training and helicopters.

In January 2003, 70 U.S. soldiers—30 are based in the departmental capital, Arauca City, and 40 in the town of Saravena—arrived in a region that has long been under the influence of the ELN and the FARC. Both rebel groups profited from the discovery of oil in the early 1980s by extorting contractors working for the oil industry and local municipalities that receive a percentage of the country’s oil revenues. While the ELN has been indoctrinating residents in the region with its Marxist rhetoric since the mid-1960s and the FARC since the mid-1980s, the right-wing paramilitary organization, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), only arrived in Arauca a couple of years ago. The arrival of the paramilitaries and the Uribe administration’s military escalation in Arauca has been met with increased rebel attacks.

It is the civilian population, as is usually the case in Colombia, that has been the principal victim of this militarization of the region. And with the arrival of the U.S. troops in Arauca, Washington is further intensifying this militarization by once again providing a stick with little or no carrot. While Bush administration officials have emphasized that U.S. troops will not be involved in combat, it appears that the U.S. military role in Colombia is ripe to follow in the footsteps of Washington’s shifting objectives in its war on terror in the Philippines. Following 9-11, the Bush administration dispatched U.S. forces to the Philippines to provide training to that country’s military, but last week the White House escalated its role dramatically with the deployment of 1,700 combat troops to the Southeast Asian country to conduct counterinsurgency operations against Muslim guerrillas. Bush’s decision last week to send 150 troops to join the search for three U.S. intelligence agents currently being held by the FARC in the jungles of southern Colombia illustrate how quickly U.S. military intervention in Colombia is capable of escalating.

The U.S. Army Special Forces troops stationed on the outskirts of war-torn Saravena—through which the pipeline runs—are situated in a town that has long been a rebel stronghold. Substantial popular support in Saravena’s poor barrios allowed the rebels to make the town center the most attacked target in Colombia in 2002—earning this town of 30,000 people the moniker, Little Sarajevo. On 80 different days last year, the guerrillas attacked the city’s police station with bombs, mortars and gunfire. As a result, virtually every building surrounding the police station is a bombed out ruin. The city hall, municipal building and countless local stores and business, as well as the airport, have all been destroyed over the past 15 months. Those buildings in the vicinity of the town plaza that have so far escaped damage have been abandoned for fear of attack. Last September, rebels fired 10 mortars at the army base that now houses the U.S. Army Special Forces troops.

The army utilized the emergency security measures implemented in the rehabilitation zone to help secure the region before the arrival of the U.S. troops. But on November 26, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that many of these security measures were unconstitutional. As a result, the army and police can no longer search and detain people without warrants—which had resulted in the rounding up and detention of more than 80 people in the local sports stadium—nor restrict access of foreign journalists to the region.

The court also declared that the census conducted by the army was unconstitutional, although the ruling came too late for the citizens of Saravena as the photographing and fingerprinting of every citizen had already been completed. Major William Bautista Castillo of the Colombian army’s 18th Brigade unit based in Saravena lamented the loss of the security measures, “All the things we could develop in the time that they were in existence helped us a lot. The census, searches without warrants to capture a suspect, all those rules have now been eliminated. But they were very useful while we could use them.”

The security measures have had little effect on the military effectiveness of the rebels. In January, the FARC introduced a new tactic when it carried out four car bombings in Arauca, killing at least 12 people and injuring 30. The principal targets of what, at first glance, appeared to be suicide attacks were military checkpoints and army patrols. However, it soon became apparent that the bombings were not suicide attacks at all. Mauricio Avandaño Camargo, the driver who survived a January 11 bombing, told authorities that the FARC took two of his brothers hostage and ordered him to drive the car to a specific location and then get out and walk away. Avandaño claims that the rebels detonated the explosives by remote control while he was still inside the car at a military checkpoint. The FARC’s new tactics exhibit a brutality that blatantly violates aspects of international law calling for the protection of unarmed civilians. They also clearly signify a willingness by the rebels to dramatically escalate the levels of violence in the very region where the U.S. troops are based.

It is into this quagmire that the U.S. Army Special Forces troops have landed in order to train Colombian troops to better protect the Caño Limón oil pipeline. In 2001, the rebels, who are demanding that the government nationalize the oil industry, attacked the pipeline a record 170 times, costing Occidental $100 million and the Colombian government $500 million in lost oil revenues. According to an Occidental spokesperson, “The amount of oil that was not produced in 2001 because of pipeline attacks was equal in value to Colombia’s coffee exports for that year.”

With the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, a war with Iraq looming on the horizon, and ongoing unrest in Venezuela, Colombia has become an important alternative source of oil. Even though the United States currently only receives three percent of its oil from Colombia, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson admitted, “With problems in other countries, each percentage is important.”

Although output is on the decline, the 100,000 barrels of oil a day currently produced by the Caño Limón field is still of great importance to Occidental. It is estimated that some 120 million barrels of oil still remain in the reservoir that straddles the Colombia-Venezuela border and every time pumping on the Colombian side is shut down by a rebel attack, production on the Venezuela side increases. Consequently, because there is no agreement between Occidental and Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA, regarding the extraction of oil from the Caño Limón field, PDVSA benefits from increased production every time Occidental is forced to stop pumping. It is also in Occidental’s best interests to secure a steady flow of oil at this time because the company’s Caño Limón contract expires in 2008, after which all assets and the remaining reserves become the exclusive property of the Colombian government.

The U.S. soldiers are training troops from the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade, whose mission includes defending the border with Venezuela, conducting counterinsurgency operations and protecting the oil pipeline. The insignia of the 18th brigade consists of an oil well, and its commander, General Carlos Lemus, directs his troops from an office inundated with souvenirs bearing the name of the company whose oil it is his mission to protect. Occidental contributes both money and logistical support, including helicopter transportation, to the Colombian military to aid with protection of the pipeline. The influence of the oil company on the 18th brigade was further evidenced when this writer requested permission to accompany an army patrol responding to a rebel attack on the pipeline. General Lemus said that such a request would have to be approved by Occidental officials.

The U.S. soldiers are training Colombian army units to conduct reconnaissance missions and to wage unconventional warfare. The courses, which are ten weeks long, mark a significant change in U.S. military policy in Colombia. Previously, U.S. aid provided training and equipment to target coca crops, poppy fields and drug processing labs, but the new counterterrorism aid aims to provide the Colombian army with the capability to wage offensive counterinsurgency operations. As a result, instead of waiting to respond to guerrilla attacks against the oil pipeline, the Colombian army will be able to launch offensives against the rebels in the hopes of preventing future pipeline attacks.

When asked how the Colombian army could defeat the FARC and ELN, one U.S. Army Special Forces soldier stationed in Saravena emphasized the importance of psychological warfare operations, “This war is not going to be won with bullets. It’s going to be won by winning the people over to the side of the Colombian army. You are not going to defeat the guerrillas by humping through the jungle like in Vietnam.”

The U.S. soldiers are billeted in their own compound in the center of the base that has been reinforced with concertina wire, sandbag walls, and heavily fortified bunkers. While they freely roam throughout the base in order to conduct training exercises and to amuse themselves playing basketball during their off-duty time, they are not permitted to leave the base. Some of these elite troops, many of who are veterans of the Contra War, the Panama invasion, the Gulf War and the Afghanistan campaign, find such restrictions frustrating and would like nothing more than to be able to go after the rebels directly. One of the U.S. soldiers admitted, “I don’t like these half-ass wars. If we are going to get involved we should just throw it down.”

While the mayor of Saravena, Jose Trinidad Sierra, welcomes the increased military presence in his battered town, he has criticized the national government’s failure to address the region’s social and economic ills. According to Trinidad Sierra, “The inhabitants of Saravena have been asking the government for social investment. We believe that the public order problem is not going to be solved with the presence of the public forces. It must be complemented with social investment. We have asked for the national government to help us to generate employment. And also we require investment in education and health.”

Not only have Bogotá and Washington failed to provide effective social and economic assistance to Arauca, but also the Uribe administration recently announced that the department would no longer receive its 9.5 percent share of the nation’s oil revenues. Additionally, local municipalities that contain the Caño Limón oil field will no longer receive their 2.5 percent of oil proceeds. According to Uribe, too much of the oil revenue is ending up in the hands of the rebels through extortion and sympathetic local politicians. Consequently, the president has declared that all future spending of the oil royalties belonging to the Arauca department and local municipalities will be handled by his administration.

In January, the ELN responded to the arrival of U.S. troops by kidnapping two foreign journalists: U.S. photographer Scott Dalton and British writer Ruth Morris, who were both working on assignment for the Los Angeles Times. Until this incident, foreign reporters covering Colombia’s civil conflict had enjoyed immunity from rebel kidnappings. But initial statements by the ELN linked the detention of the journalists to the presence of U.S. troops in Arauca when the rebel group declared that the two reporters would not be released until the “political and military situation merited,” which appeared to be a call for the withdrawal of the U.S. soldiers. In the face of international condemnation, the ELN revised its position and freed the journalists 11 days later.

Shortly afterward, the ELN announced an armed blockade of Arauca’s highways from February 10-15 to protest the presence of U.S. troops in the region. As a result, all movement of people and goods between Arauca’s principal towns was paralyzed. One of the two airlines that fly to Saravena cancelled its flights for fear that the rebels would shoot at planes during the blockade. The rebel tactics clearly signified a direct response to the Bush administration’s war on terrorism in Colombia.

While many question the social commitment of the FARC and ELN, there is no doubting their military strength. The guerrillas have already proven that they can attack Saravena at will, therefore, the presence of U.S. troops in such a hotly-contested region dramatically increases the possibility of U.S. soldiers becoming directly involved in combat. If an attack by an armed group on the State Department’s terrorist list were to result in the deaths of U.S. troops in Saravena, it could easily open the door to a full-scale U.S. military intervention in Colombia’s civil conflict under the guise of the global war on terror. Such an intervention would only further militarize a conflict to which there is no military solution. Furthermore, the price of such a miltary escalation would inevitably be paid by innocent Colombians caught in the crossfire.

A different version of this article appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas

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