From the air, the Cano Limon pipeline is invisible. The 480-mile
tube is buried 6 feet below ground, but its route through the
rolling Colombian prairie is marked by a swathe of black oil slicks
and burned ground, the result of repeated bomb attacks by leftist
The pipeline, which links the oil field near the border with
Venezuela to a port on Colombia's Caribbean coast, has been
punctured so many times in the last 16 years that locals call it
"the flute." Some 2.9 million barrels of crude oil have leaked into
the soil and rivers - about 11 times the amount spilled in the 1989
Exxon Valdez disaster.
Now the US government is seeking Congressional approval for $98
million to provide equipment and training for a new Colombian Army
brigade to guard the oil duct. If approved, it would mark a major
shift in US policy, allowing direct support for counterinsurgency
operations against guerrilla saboteurs.
Oil is Colombia's biggest foreign-currency earner, and US
officials say the aid is essential for the Colombian government, a
key ally in the US war on drugs. But critics say it is still unclear
whose interests are being served.
Last year, 170 bomb attacks disabled the pipeline for most of the
year. It cost Occidental Petroleum, which runs the field, $75
million in profits - and cost the government $430 million in oil
"We're talking about something which is fundamental for the
economy of the country. Of course there is a US interest, but [with
the attacks] it is Colombia which is losing out," says an Occidental
As the country spirals deeper into civil war, some fear that the
aid package signals that the Bush government is more concerned with
protecting the interests of American companies than in helping to
end a 38-year conflict.
"It's a way of saying that US interests trump everything else.
There are real and legitimate reasons to protect the pipeline, but
given all that Colombia needs, is this really a priority?" says
Robin Kirk, a Colombia analyst at Human Rights Watch.
Most of the rebel attacks occur in the first 75 miles, where the
duct passes through the wild frontier zone of Arauca state, which
has been a rebel stronghold for decades.
Colombia's two largest guerrilla armies, the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN),
oppose foreign involvement in the nation's oil industry and,
according to the Colombian military, the rebels hope that the
pipeline attacks will weaken the government by depriving it of
"The intensity of the attacks shows that the pipeline is a
fundamental strategic target," says Brig. Gen. Carlos Lemus,
commander of the 18th Brigade, and the man who will oversee the new
unit if and when it is formed.
The brigade's badge shows a soldier guarding an oil well under a
blazing prairie sun, and according to General Lemus, two-thirds of
Colombia's troops are already dedicated to defending the oil
infrastructure. But the Army is incapable of protecting the entire
pipeline, which can be punctured with a relatively small explosive. …