The Colombian National Army is carrying out operations to protect the country’s infrastructure, including oil producing facilities, in response to attacks by terrorist organizations.
In January, the Colombian government created the Centers for Special Operations for the Security of the State's Critical Infrastructure (COPEI).
COPEI coordinates the exchange of information between public security forces, state institutions and the private sector. Improved coordination helps authorities react quickly to threats and attacks on oil facilities.
Attacks cost citizens, companies alike
Attacks on oil facilities have cost petroleum companies hundreds of millions of dollars in 2014 – and they’ve disrupted the lives of Colombia’s citizens as well.
A July 28 bombing by the FARC, for instance, left the 400,000 residents of Buenaventura without power for days.
“For the many residents of Buenaventura, [who] are already struggling with soaring unemployment and a murder rate three times that of the capital, Bogotá, the power outage only makes things worse,” Dan Molinsko wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
Attacks on the power grid can shut down hospitals, schools and other crucial public facilities, and can expose the infirm and elderly to roasting heat in the summer months. They also place citizens at risk of further attacks from gang members and other criminals who try to take advantage of darkened streets.
The environmental devestation often hits Colombian civilians the hardest. Oil spills from pipeline attacks can poison the land and displace farmers and other residents.
“This forces many residents in rural communities to move, or it forces them to buy water or fertilizer for their land, which increases their expenses,” Colombian environmentalist Gustavo Wilches told Infosurhoy.com.
Between January and June 30, 2014, suspected terrorists committed 64 attacks on oil facilities throughout the country, according to the Colombian Petroleum Association (ACP). These attacks cost the petroleum industry more than $460 million (USD) in lost sales, according to the July 3 edition of El Pais.
That figure does not include millions of dollars in repair expenses, or the costs of recovering spilled oil and cleaning up the environment.
Colombian security forces have succeeded in disrupting many of the FARC’s and the ELN’s drug trafficking and illegal mining operations, said Jorge Alberto Restrepo, director of Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC). So to raise funds, these groups increasingly extort petroleum companies.
In some cases, the FARC and the ELN attack oil facilities when companies refuse to pay extortion. These attacks have increased in recent years, according to Restrepo: 31 in 2010; 84 in 2011; 151 in 2012; and 228 in 2013, according to Restrepo.
Eighty percent of the attacks have occurred in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, and Putumayo.
The FARC, the ELN, and other terrorist groups are also attacking electrical power pylons. From January 1 2014 through late July, organized crime groups damaged five power transmission units, authorities said. To protect these important facilities from terrorist attacks, security forces have increased their patrols in areas near transmission units.
A strong response
Military authorities are responding by dedicating a high level of resources to the protection of oil pipelines and refineries.
For example, members of the Colombian National Army are helping to protect “physical facilities, transport networks and equipment whose destruction or the interruption of its service would have a serious impact on the well being of the public, the development of the country, and the efficient functioning of the state,” according to Revista Ejercito.
The approach is proving effective in thwarting a majority of attempted attacks by organized crime groups and terrorists on infrastructure, according to Restrepo.
“Security forces are working assiduously. Sixty percent of the attacks attempted by the guerillas against infrastructure are thwarted by security forces, which is a very high percentage.”
Army personnel are using military intelligence and unmanned aircraft to monitor the security of oil pipelines and ground operations at critical points.
The Colombian Air Force and the Colombian National Police are working in cooperation with Army soldiers to protect the country’s infrastructure.
Successful security operations
Security forces have prevented dozens of potential attacks.
For example, on Aug. 1, the José Domingo Caicedo Infantry Battalion and the Joint Explosives Groups of the Zeus task force foiled an attack by the FARC against the power pylon that supplies six towns in Tolima. The attack by the FARC could have deprived more than 100,000 people of power.
In May, terrorist operatives damaged a power pylon, depriving six towns south of Tolima of power for 24 hours, according to an Army report.
Terrorists operatives often recruit or force teenagers to place explosives which damage power pylons. Such explosive devices typically cost about 250,000 pesos, according to Vanguardia.
On June 29, the ELN attacked a pipeline installation in the department of Arauca with a gas cylinder filled with shrapnel, authorities said. The explosion injured 13 people.