Sunday, September 15, 2002

Looks like it's "how much taxpayer money is going to be spent defending the foreign interests of our oil companies?" day.

ARAUCA, Colombia -- Under pressure from Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and the U.S. government, the Colombian military has redeployed its forces to protect a key oil pipeline, leading to an explosion of violence in the undefended countryside.

The army has reassigned the majority of its troops in this war-torn province to patrol the pipeline, which is jointly owned by Occidental and the Colombian state oil company. Leftist guerrillas battling the government shut down production for a total of eight months in 2001, but this year the number of attacks on the pipeline hasplunged.

Civilians in Arauca, the province that surrounds the pipeline, have paid the price. In the absence of any sustained military presence since late last year, Colombia's violent right-wing paramilitary squads quickly moved in, unleashing a campaign of murder and terror with impunity.


Until now, U.S. aid has been limited to fighting drug trafficking. But as early as next month, the first U.S. instructors will arrive to launch a controversial training program to help Colombian soldiers program to help Colombian soldiers better protect the pipeline. The U.S. is also planning to send helicopters and improve intelligence sharing with the Colombian army.

Critics charge that the plan forces U.S. taxpayers to provide security for a private company, Occidental. And human rights groups say the local Colombian army unit, the 18th Brigade, has aided the paramilitary advance, meaning that U.S. trainers may become complicit in human rights abuses.

U.S. and Colombian officials defend the training plan, saying it will protect oil flow along the pipeline, which provides an important source of revenue for the Colombian government. The additional income from the protected pipeline will allow the Colombian government to step up efforts to combat the rebels and paramilitaries, the officials argue, as well as the drugs that flow to U.S. streets.

But once here, the U.S. troops will be stationed in barracks that suffer frequent attacks from the guerrillas.