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Dec 27, 2016 | 21:25 GMT

Can Colombia Protect Its Oil Infrastructure?

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Can Colombia Protect Its Oil Infrastructure?
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Neutralizing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will not remove all security risks to energy activity in the country. The persistence of the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgent group and the growth of criminal clusters in areas of former FARC influence will continue to pose dangers. Some former FARC members will no doubt continue their criminal activities, while separate criminal organizations, such as Clan del Golfo, formerly known as Clan Usuga, will fill the vacuum left by departing FARC forces in some areas. Where that occurs, attacks on oil infrastructure and personnel for the purposes of extortion will continue to be a threat.

Most of Colombia's oil exploration and production occurs in central Meta department, in the country's southwest near Ecuador and in northeastern regions near Venezuela. That production has been subject to periodic politically motivated attacks by the FARC and other insurgent groups. If Colombia's Congress can pass legislation over the next year to facilitate FARC's withdrawal from combat, its long-running insurgency will be defunct within two or three years, thereby reducing the overall security threat to oil and natural gas activity.

Northeastern Colombia will remain a problem spot for oil companies given that it is an area of heavy ELN activity. Despite this, state-run energy firm Ecopetrol and U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. have already established operations in the region. Of the 42 attacks against oil pipelines recorded in Colombia this year, 38 took place in the northeast, mostly in the departments of Norte de Santander and Arauca, according to Colombia's Ministry of National Defense. These areas have historically been strongholds for the ELN. Even if a separate peace deal negotiated between the Colombian government and the ELN succeeds, the group's Domingo Lain Front would likely continue its activities, hoping to exploit opportunities for extortion and cross-border smuggling. Since the 1980s, the ELN has extorted money from oil, petroleum services and construction companies by threatening exploration, production and transportation activities. The most recent trend of attacks in the region has apparently focused on private and public interests in the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander.

The situation is somewhat different in the rest of Colombia. In the country's southwest, another oil production hub, FARC's demobilization could actually increase the incidence of extortion and violence against the petroleum sector. When FARC implemented a unilateral cease-fire in mid-2015 to prove its commitment to peace talks, the number of attacks against pipelines and other infrastructure fell off sharply. Once the rebels are fully demobilized, likely after the first quarter of 2017, some of its former members may return to areas the group once controlled to form new criminal organizations. Some of these criminal groups could ally with other organizations such as the Clan Golfo and expand extortion of oil producers and service companies, an activity likely to be a main source of funding for them.

Criminal alliances will occur mainly in areas of shared interest regarding drug trafficking, like in the remote Guaviare department, where coca production is strong. But such alliances already appear to be forming in Meta department, home to the Rubiales oil field, Colombia's largest. Extortion has been a long-standing issue in that department, and as demobilization strips FARC militants of the political incentive to limit their attacks against infrastructure or private interests, violence could increase. Violence could also increase as nascent criminal gangs strive to establish their presence and compete with other criminals for a share of extortion and drug trafficking revenue.

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