State Terror and the Struggle for Ecopetrol

by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT

After seven hours of debate on Dec. 12, Colombia’s Congress voted 60-29 to authorize the sale of a 20% stake in the Colombian state oil company. Ecopetrol. Under the terms, shares in Ecopetrol will be sold on Colombia’s stock market to finance the company’s expansion. The sale is set to be carried out in the third quarter of 2007. (La Republica, Dec. 13)

Priority in allocating the shares will be given to labor unions, the company’s workers, cooperative associations, pension funds and Colombian citizens. Said Mines and Energy Minister Hernan Martinez: “Ecopetrol will become stronger for the benefit of its workers and all Colombians.”

In pushing the legislation, the government of President Alvaro Uribe sited the need to find new reserves and boost production. According to official figures, production fell to an average of 526,392 barrels a day in October from about 815,000 barrels a day in 1999. According to government estimates, if no new reserves are found, the country will become a net oil importer in 2012. (Business Week, Dec. 13)

Martinez said the sale could raise as much as $4 billion. He warned that without expansion, Colombia—Latin America’s fifth-largest oil exporter with 1.45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves—could become a net importer by 2011. The sale also will give Ecopetrol independence to make its own finances and allow its board to choose its chief executive, heretofore appointed by the governmentt. “The most important reason for this sale is to give autonomy to the company, so that it doesn’t need to be under the control of the government,” said Martinez. (Bloomberg, Dec. 14)

The move comes as private contracts are also expanding in Colombia’s oil sector, with Ecopetrol farming out more work to foreign firms. Days after the congressional vote, it was announced that Ecopetrol has awarded a $50 million “project management consulting” contract to the French energy-services company Technip for the expansion of its main refinery at the jungle river port of Barrancabermeja. (Construction & Maintenance, Dec. 21)

Other refineries have already been partially privatized. In August 2006, the Swiss-based Glencore International had purchased a 51% stake in Ecopetrol’s Cartagena refinery on the Caribbean coast. Glencore outbid Brazil’s Petrobras in the government auction, and Petrobras is now considering a bid to Gelncore. “We’re negotiating with the winner of the auction,” Petrobras international director Nestor Cervero said. (Market Watch, Dec. 14)

But the changes at Ecopetrol are challenged by the company’s workers at the Barrancabermeja refinery—who have repeatedly paralyzed operations in protest of the moves towards privatization, resulting in the plant being occupied by the army. The Syndicated Workers Union (USO), representing the oil sector, has threatened to bring the entire company to a halt if the sale proceeds.

Paramilitaries Enforce Privatization

Labor is under attack in Colombia. According to a year-end study by Colombia’s National Labor School (ENS), a total of 71 unionists were assassinated in 2006—compared with 67 in 2005. Thirteen of those targeted were leaders, the Medellin-based non-governmental organization said. Another 13 were women. At least nine could be definitively attributed to the supposedly “demobilized” paramilitary network, the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Seven were attributed to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The findings were based on reports from local human rights groups throughout the country.

The ENS sees a rapidly contracting space for civil opposition in Colombia. The study found that the aggressors have an “intention of annihilation and closing off by whatever means—generally by violent character—legal or institutional strategies.”

The report also contested President Uribe’s contention that his “democratic security” policy has brought about a safer environment in Colombia. “There has not been any positive change in reference to homicides; on the contrary, it is evident that the dimension of the violations has continued.”

Beyond assassinations, the ENS also noted “continuous persecutions and threats” against labor in Colombia, especially on the part of the paramilitary groups. In an implicit reference to the supposed “demobilization” of the paramilitaries now underway, the report states there is a state of “persecution without truce.”

The study found the greatest increase in killings to be in the two departments of Magdalena, on the Caribbean coast, and Arauca on the eastern plains. (RCN Radio, Colombia, Dec. 23)

Arauca is a key strategic region for Ecopetrol, site of the Cano-Limon oil fields, currently the country’s most productive. Cano-Limon is also where US oil companies in joint partnerships with Ecopetrol have been granted most generous access.

Fictional “Demobilization”

The so-called “demobilization” of the AUC is starting to look increasingly dubious. The AUC formally broke off dialogue with the government Dec. 7 when 59 AUC leaders were transferred from the “reclusion zone” they had been granted for the talks at La Ceja, Antioquia. to the top-security prison at Itagui, outside Medellin. The government cited the Nov. 17 murder of AUC’s Commander Omega (Jefferson Martinez) in Copacabana, Antioquia, and the disappearance of another AUC commander, “Danielito.” “Omega” was the right-hand-man of “Jorge 40” (Rodrigo Tovar Pupo), the figure at the center of the current scandal involving paramilitary control of elected officials and regional political machines.

But “Omega” was not the only victim of apparent AUC terror in recent weeks. Colombia’s non-governmental Council on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) states that throughout the country there are perhaps 60 “emergent bands” of “demobilized” paras who have returned to action. CODHES especially reported a new wave of terror in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, which has displaced 8,000 local people over the past three months. The report named a local outfit called the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles), it said was led by men in the “confidence” of Jorge 40 and top AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso. (El Tiempo, Dec. 10)

Neither has displacement of Colombia’s civil population—with campesinos and the indigenous especially targetted—been slowed by the supposed “demobilization.” In June 2006, CODHES reported that more than 10,500 had been displaced over the past five months. They pointed to 22 instances of massive exodus due to threats from and cross-fire between illegal armed groups. (Vanguardia, Bucaramanga, June 14, 2006)

CODHES reports that Colombia could now have the second largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan. Nearly three million people have been displaced by violence since 1985, by CODHES estimates. The government contests the figure, but all sources agree that the annual number of new displacements has significantly increased since 1993. (ReliefWeb Situation Reports, May 15, 2003)

As always, human rights monitors are themselves the targets of para terror, and the “demobilization: has not changed this. On May 20, 2006, CODHES received a threatening e-mail from a group calling itself the “Democratic Group for a Free Colombia”—doubtless one of the “emergent bands” the organanization warned of. The message stated that CODHES and like groups “would not be allowed to continue” their work. The note also referenced the fact that computers were stolen from the CODHES office several weeks earlier. It read in part: “We are not willing to continue allowing a bunch of disguised people like all of you to continue dragging our country through the mud of communism, and especially not under the influence of the current socialist versions of Chavismo, Castrismo, Evomoralismo, Lulismo or any other version in which you try to disguise yourselves. We are warning all of you supposed defenders of human rights (as well as these guerrillas described as professors who say they are opening spaces of free thought in the sacred state universities) that we are watching you. We are not going to allow your glory days to return.” (Lutheran World Relief, August 21, 2006)

Arauca: Pacifying the Oil Frontier

Arauca, on the eastern plains along the Venezuelan border, is one of Colombia’s most militarized departments. The Colombian army has an overwhelming, visible presence throughout Arauca, and is routinely accused by human rights groups of arbitrary detainments and other abuses. Arauca has been declared a special “Rehabilitation Zone” where normal civil rights protections are suspended. (Observatorio de la CCEEU, via Colombia Indymedia, Dec. 9, 2006)

The forces are overseen by a group of Green Berets from the US 7th Special Forces Group under a special multi-million project approved as part of Plan Colombia. This program is turning the Colombian army’s 18th Brigade into a special force to protect the local investments of Occidental Petroleum, which operates in a partnership with Ecopetrol. (The Telegraph, Dec. 10, 2002 via 7th Special Forces Group website)

Despite this high-profile military presence, the paramilitaries operate with a free hand in Arauca. Indigenous leaders who have protested the contamination of their traditional lands and waters by the oil operations are among those who have been targeted, leading the environmental network Biodiversidad en America Latina to see a coordinated campaign of “ecocide and ethnocide.” (Biodiversidad en America Latina, Dec. 22)

The region’s indigenous peoples won a victory in May 2002, when Occidental announced at its annual shareholder meeting in Los Angeles that it was quitting its oil exploration bloc in the high cloud forests overlooking the eastern plains, straddling the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander. The company cited economic reasons for the move, including a negative result from its first exploratory drill in the region last July. However, the announcement comes after 10 years of effort by the U’wa people and their international supporters to halt the oil development. At least two U’wa had been killed when their blockades of access roads to the drill sites were broken by the army.

But the victory may now prove temporary. On Dec. 15, 2006, Colombia’s Interior Ministry cleared the way for Ecopetrol to begin new explorations in the same territory—this time on behalf of the Spanish firm Repsol. The Ministry stated in its decision that the U’wa had refused to participate in consultation meetings it had organized to discuss the question. (El Tiempo, Dec. 16, 18 via ReliefWeb)

In response to the announcement, Luis Tegria, president of the Assembly of the U’wa Indigenous Community, said that the question of oil development was not negotiable and pledged that his people will defend their ancestral lands. He also protested that the Ministry’s decision was made public before the U’wa were officially notified. (Prensa Latina, Dec. 19)

The greater freedom for foreign oil corporations in Colombia is predicated on the extinguishing of human freedom. Trade unionists, campesinos and indigenous peoples whose lives and lands are threatened by the opening of corporate access face the systematic terror of the paramilitary network. Despite the supposed “demobilization,” the paras are the de facto enforcers of Uribe’s free trade policies.



La Republica, Bogota, Dec. 13, 2006…

Business Week, Dec. 13, 2006

Bloomberg, Dec. 14, 2006…

Construction & Maintenance, Dec. 21, 2006

MarketWatch, Dec. 14, 2006…

RCN Radio, Bogota, Dec. 23, 2006

El Tiempo, Bogota, Dec. 10, 2006…

La Vanguardia, Bucaramanga, June 14, 2006, via Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos – ILSA

ReliefWeb Situation Reports, May 15, 2003…

Lutheran World Relief August 21, 2006

Observatorio de la CCEEU, via Colombia Indymedia, Dec. 9, 2006

The Telegraph, UK, Dec. 10, 2002 via 7th Special Forces Group website

Biodiversidad en America Latina, Dec. 22, 2006

El Tiempo, Bogota, Dec. 16, 18 via ReliefWeb

Prensa Latina, Dec. 19, 2006…

See also:

FARC Indictments Spell Escalation in Andean Oil War”
by Peter Gorman
WW4 REPORT #121, May 2006

by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #105, Dec. 10, 2004

Big Oil’s Secret War?”
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #108, April 2005

From our weblog:

“Colombia: para leader testifies at tribunal; dialogue stalled”
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 21, 2006

“Colombia announces 20% privatization of state oil company”
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 14. 2006

“Oxy pulls out of U’wa country”
WW4 REPORT, July 14, 2002


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution