The arrival of about 60 advisors from the 7th Special Forces Group marks a turning point in U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. They joined about 10 others already stationed in Arauca state on Colombia's eastern border with Venezuela, their mission to train Colombian army troops to protect the key 780-km long Cano Limon oil pipeline from rebel attacks. Shipments of equipment and supplies are expected over the next few weeks and the Fort Bragg-based advisors are expected to begin training at the end of the month. Around $95 million has been slated to train and equip the Colombian's the 5th and the 18th Brigades and, after heavy lobbying by the aircraft manufacturers, helicopter gun-ships appear to be first on the shopping list.
These two brigades are assigned protect a pipeline that carries oil for Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum across northern Colombia to a seaside depot. Rebels have attacked Colombia's second largest pipeline dozens of times over the last year.
The battleground in Arauca, an area of grassy plains and oilfields, has been ecologically hard-hit by the rebels' actions. In less than a three-month period between July and September 2000, ELN guerrillas launched 22 attacks on the pipeline with an overall spillage of 150,000 barrels.
Up until now, U.S. military aid and training was restricted largely to battling the cocaine production (the profits of which fuel both the rebel group FARC and rival paramilitary gunmen). But the U.S. Congress agreed to expand U.S. military assistance to helping Colombia combat the rebels. U.S. Special Forces have already trained a 2,000-member Colombian army counternarcotics brigade as part of almost $2 billion in mostly military aid the United States has given Colombia over the past three years.
Leftist rebels have also stepped up their attacks on military, police and civilian targets in recent weeks. In December, suspected rebels forced a bus driver transporting security workers for Cano Limon oil field to park the vehicle next to explosives, killing two workers and wounding 11.
Quite simply, the rebels are attacking the government's checkbook. Colombia is Latin America's fourth largest crude producer and oil is its main source of foreign-earned cash. With a daily oil production in 1999 of 743,000 barrels per day, Colombia earned about $3.7 billion dollars from oil exports. The 110,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) pipeline had been knocked out of action for more than 170 days in 2001. - Adam Geibel