Paramilitary Terror and the Struggle for Colombia's Oil

by Bill Weinberg

For over two months now, Colombia's most important oil refinery, at the tropical river port of Barrancabermeja, in central Santander department, has be en under occupation by the military. The army's Energy and Transport Battalion No. 7 -- created in 1995 ostensibly to protect oil infrastructure from guerilla attack--took control of the refinery in late June, following protests by the oil workers themselves. It was not wages or benefits which were at issue, but the future of the state-owned Colombian Petroleum Company, or Ecopetrol, which runs the facility.

Represented by the Syndicated Workers Union (USO), the refinery employees launched a permanent vigil at the plant gates to protest the lock-out of unionized workers and military seizure of the plant. They were dispersed days later by National Police troops, who fired tear gas and water cannons, sparking days of street fighting. The confrontation came days after Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe signed a decree reorganizing Ecopetrol and the nation's oil industry.

Says Juan Carlos Galvis, Barrancabermeja president of the Central Workers Union (CUT), Colombia's main labor federation, which covers the USO oil workers: "Uribe's reform was a blow to the heart of the company. This is setting the groundwork for privatization. We could compete on a global level with the multinationals. But the state has no commitment to investing in Ecopetrol. Uribe follows the mandates of the International Monetary Fund, and is paving the way for the FTAA. He can't admit this because it would be seen as a surrender of national sovereignty. But his agenda is to deliver national resources to foreign capital. It is savage capitalism, without a human face."

And Galvis says that this agenda is enforced in Barrancabermeja not only by the official security forces of the army, navy and National Police, but by the unofficial ultra-right paramilitaries -- who have an invisible but near-total control over Colombia's central oil town.

Petrol and the Paramilitaries: A "Totalitarian Agenda"

Galvis should know. Since he started receiving death threats in 2001 -- mostly delivered through friends, neighbors and relatives by "para" operatives in civilian clothes -- Galvis has had a personal round-the-clock bodyguard contracted by the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia's equivalent of the FBI. On August 22, Galvis was leaving the office of Barrancabermeja's municipal workers union shortly after noon. He got into his car with his two bodyguards. As they were passing a local school, two men on a motorbike jack-knifed in front of the car, and pulled pistols. The bodyguards called out "DAS!" The aggressors opened fire, the body guards returned fire with their Uzis, and the gunmen fled. "It only lasted a few seconds, but bullets were flying, and right outside a school," says Galvis. "We're lucky nobody was hurt."

Others haven't been so lucky. Barrancabermeja's former mayor Julio Cesar Ardila has been in hiding since June, when he was charged with murder of radio journalist Juan Emeterio Rivas who accused him of corruption and links paramilitary violence. Invited to a party April 6 where he was ambushed, seven youths who accompanied Rivas were also killed as "collateral damage." An interim mayor is now in power.

Galvis says that last year the young daughter of William Mendoza, president of the local of the food workers un ion, SINALTRAINAL, representing workers a t the Barrancabermeja Coca-Cola plant, was the target of attempted kidnapping. Galvis also works at the Coke plant, where unionists have long received death threats from the "paras."

"The paras do whatever they want here in Barranca," says Galvis. "They have the political power. They have the economic power." He cites a thriving black market in gasoline pirated by paramilitaries from the refinery with the connivance of authorities. The Aug. 26 headline in the daily Vanguardia Liberal of nearby Bucaramanga boasted of a big crackdown on a para gasoline pirating operation, with much petrol recovered by the National Police -- but failed to note any arrests. Galvis also says the paras are funded by their control of local cocaine producti on and by big cattle ranches in the broad valley of the Rio Magdalena, where Barrancabermeja is situated.

The paramilitary campaign against organized labor in Barancabermeja really began with the 1988 murder of Manuel Chacon, a now-legendary USO leader at the refinery. Nobody was ever arrested for the assassination, but Barrancabermeja's Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS), founded one year earlier by church and union members, blames the killing on a shadowy group known as the Red Armada 07 -- Navy Network 07, the last two digits being a reference to the "license to kill." According to CREDHOS, the Colombian Navy, whose First Brigade patrols the Rio Magdalena from Barrancabermeja, cooperated and overlapped with loca l paramilitary forces in the 07 network.

CREDHOS accuses Col. Rodrigo Quinones, who was sacked from the Navy in 2002, of having overseen the 07 network. As director of Naval Intelligence in the early 1990's, Quinones was fingered by Colombian prosecutor s as mastermind of a paramilitary network responsible for the killings of 57 unionists, human rights workers and members of the leftist Patriotic Union. In 1994, Col. Quinones and seven others were charged with "conspiring t o form or collabora te with armed groups." But Quinones was acquitted after the main witness against him was killed in a maximum security prison and the case was moved from a civilian court to a military tribunal.

CREDHOS claims the Quinones network also collaborated with paramilitaries in the February 2000 El Salado massacre, in which 300 para troops shot up a local village, killing over 30, including women and children, and forcing the rest to flee. Also attributed to the former colonel is the M ay 16, 1998 massacre in B arrio El Campin and Mariaeugenia, two working-class Barrancabermeja neighborhoods. Paras entered the barrios in trucks, killed seven, and took 25 captive -- their whereabouts remain a mystery. There have been no arrests in the case. Several military and National Police troops were investigated--and cleared. More charges against para members are still outstanding, but they are on the lam--presumably somewhere in the sprawling ranches and jungles of the Medio Magdalena region. Violence against USO members has continued after Quinones' fall from grace. On March 25, 2002, Rafael Jaimes Torra, treasurer of the Barrancabermeja USO local, was assassinated as he left his home in the Galan district. His nephew, who was with him at the time, was also seriously wounded.

CREDHOS, which has lost seven members to assassinations since the organization was founded, says that 8,000 have been forced to flee Barrancabermeja (pop. 300,000) since 2001. But homicides in the city have dropped from 546 in 2000 to 117 in 2002. "The reduced level of terror reflects the fact that the paras are now maintaining control, implementing their totalitarian project," says CREDHOS investigator Ademir Luna.

National Campaign to Defend Ecopetrol

The unionized workers remained locked out at the refinery for several weeks, despite protests even from the Bishop of Barrancabermeja, Jaime Preito Amaya. A lock-out and days of street violence also followed a one-day strike on February 19 of this year. There is no real resolution in sight -- because the workers are pitted against President Uribe's entire energy policy. Says Hecor Vaca, secretary of energy issues for USO and a system engineer for Ecopetrol: "We are waging a national campaign to defend Ecopetrol as a state company."

The Barrancabermeja refinery daily turns 230,000 barrels of oil into gasoline, diesel and petrochemicals, and employs 2,000. Pipelines deliver oil to the refinery from Arauca and Cesar departments, in links branching off from the Cano-Limon pipeline that brings Occidental Petroleum's oil from the Arauca oilfields to the Caribbean coast for export. Ecopetrol also has operations in Boyaca and Meta departments, with smaller ops in Putumayo, in the Amazon basin.

Private multinationals have a growing presence in Colombia's oil sector. In addition to Occidental's operations in war-town Arauca, BP is exploiting oil in Casanare. Texaco recently signed a deal to exploit natural gas on the Caribbean coast in La Guajir a department. Under Uribe's Presidential Decree 17-60 of June 23, reorganizing Ecopetrol and Colombia's oil sector, these foreign corporations are given a far freer hand.

Decree 17-60 created a National Hyd rocarbons Agency (ANH), taking over the former Ecopetrol functions of administrating and mapping Colombia's petroleum resources, establishing exploration blocks, and granting contracts to foreign firms. It changed Ecopetrol from a wholly state entity with responsibility to re-inv est in Colombia to an "anonymous society" or "SA" (the Latin American equivalent of "Inc."), open to investment -- although, thanks to USO pressure, only to investment from other state entities rather than the private sector. It also overturned the policy, in place since 1974, of maintaining Ecopetrol as a 50-percent investor in all foreign oil ops, with 20% of profits going into National Royalty Fund for impacted municipalities as compensation. Finally, it created a Colombian Energy Promotion Society, another SA, to promote private investment in the energy sector -- not only in oil, but also gas, coal, electrical generation, et cetera. Uribe is also floating a proposal to take money from the National Royalty Fund (now invested in potable water, health, education and other local social infrastructure) to build infrastructure such as roads, rail or power lines to make energy resources more attractive to investors.

"The majority of private investment in energy sector is already foreign -- from Spain, the Unit ed States, Britain," says Hector Vaca. He sees Uribe's reorganization as "a program of globalization, at the expense of Colombia."

Since 2001, Shell Global Solutions -- a subsidiary of the multinational oil giant--has had a team of technical advisors at both Barrancabermeja and Cartagena, where Ecopetrol's second refinery is located (and which has also seen a wave of assassinations and "disappearances" of USO workers in recent years). Vaca protests the presence of the Shell team at Barrancaber meja as redundant and wasteful. "They have appropriated information and ideas from our own technicians and presented them as their own," he says. USO also opposes cost-cutting measures recommended by the Shell team as dangerous to workers.

The local rumor among Barrancabermeja oil workers is that Shell has plans to actually buy the refinery at some point in the future. Shell had oil operations in the region in the 1960s, and local campesinos still complain that a canal the company built to access remote wells altered the flow of the Rio Cimitarra, a tributary of the Magdalena, causing fish-rich wetlands to disappear.

Uribe's ambitious plans to remake the Colombian economy extend beyond oil. On Aug. 12, a CUT-led protest and walk-out of state workers (and thousands of supporters in the private sector) brought 20,000 to Bogota's Plaza Bolivar. At issue was the reorganization of Ecopetrol as well as Uribe's recent liquidation of the state telecom -- which resulted in 7,000 workers being laid off--and reform of the labor code. But oil remains the Colombian resource most coveted by foreign capital.

"Our fear is that little by little Ecopetrol's functions will be turned over to the private sector and the state wil l have only a regulatory role," says Vaca. "We cannot allow that. Potable water, education, health, employment opportunities -- if this is not the role of the state, what is it?"

(August 27, 2003)