Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS
By Constanza Vieira
BOGOTA, Jun 28, 2011 (IPS) – "Today we are launching the new campaign for demobilisation in Caguán. Planting seeds of hope against the terror of the FARC," Colombian Defence Minister Rodrigo Rivera recently wrote in his Twitter account.
Caguán is the area in southern Colombia where three Chinese employees of the British oil company Emerald Energy, a subsidiary of the Chinese petrochemical giant Sinochem, and their translator were kidnapped Jun. 7.
Zhau Hong, Yang Jing and Tang Guo Fu were seized near the town of San Vicente del Caguán in a remote southern jungle region by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels. Neither the nationality nor the identity of the translator has been confirmed.
The area where they were kidnapped, along the road between San Vicente del Caguán and the village of Los Pozos, is well-known to journalists because the village served as the site of the three years of peace talks between the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and the FARC that began in January 1999.
When the talks collapsed in February 2002, hostilities broke out again in the Switzerland-sized area in southern Caquetá province, where Caguán is located, that had been demilitarised for the negotiations.
Police at the service of Emerald Energy
Local communities have been protesting since April, complaining that they have not been consulted by foreign oil companies operating in their territory, and that agreements signed by the Uribe administration have not been fulfilled.
"The Ultimate Dream of a Multinational (Corporation): To Have an Army at Its Service" is the title of the November 2010 edition of Action on Colombia, the newsletter of the U.S.-based Colombia Support Network (CSN).
According to local community leaders, Emerald Energy intervened to keep the authorities from releasing six indigenous activists who had been arrested and beaten in a peaceful protest outside the company’s regional offices in the north of Putumayo, a province along the Ecuadorean border.
The protest was brutally put down by anti-riot police, and the detained demonstrators were badly beaten and denied medical attention for hours, the community leaders denounced.
Civilian and military authorities in a security council meeting the following day decided to release them. "But Emerald Energy, the petroleum company of which the indigenous community was making their demands, canceled the decision," says the communiqué printed in the CSN newsletter.
Of the six detainees, three are wise elders of the Nasa indigenous community, and one is a traditional authority representing the community.
The Colombian military began carrying out aerial spraying of coca crops as part of the heavily U.S.-financed Plan Colombia, forcing hundreds of thousands of coca farmers, who made up a potential support base for the guerrillas, to flee their homes and their land.
The first hours of bombing of Los Pozos by the air force after the peace talks fell apart in 2002 were registered by Brazilian satellites that monitor fires in the Amazon jungle, and could be seen in the footage as a huge area of heat, far more devastating than all of the forest fires combined.
Six months later, right-wing President Álvaro Uribe took office, until August 2010, and the central focus of his administration was to deal the biggest possible blow to the FARC, which at its peak controlled an estimated 40 percent of the national territory (basically rural, sparsely populated areas).
The left-wing rebels initially retreated. But in 2005 they began to surround the district seats again, even though the police and military had moved back into the main towns in Caguán.
Later came massive, long-term military operations: Plan Patriota, followed by Plan Consolidación, to which the FARC, a rural communist guerrilla force led since 2008 by a Bogotá-born anthropologist whose nom de guerre is Alfonso Cano, ended up adapting.
Under Cano’s leadership, the FARC has undergone a restructuring over the last year and a half, "which only began to be felt in August," coinciding with the start of the government of Uribe’s former defence minister Juan Manual Santos, military analyst Ariel Ávila, with the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Bogotá think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, told IPS.
San Vicente del Caguán-Los Pozos is now surrounded to the west by the elite "Teófilo Forero" FARC unit, to the north by the rebel group’s Yari Front, to the south by its 15th Front, and to the east by three columns of its 14th Front.
But the situation in the jungle where the three Chinese oil workers and their translator were ambushed and seized is even more complex.
The area is being penetrated by the paramilitary Popular Anticommunist Revolutionary Army (ERPAC), founded by drug trafficker Pedro Oliveiro, alias "Cuchillo" (knife). Before he was killed by the police in December, he used to take part in local security councils convened by civilian and military authorities to discuss the problem of the armed conflict.
The search for the Chinese oil workers and their translator is being conducted by the military’s highly trained joint Omega task force, a powerful unit that has shown "total complacency" towards ERPAC, according to Ávila.
Land of oil and mining companies
Two of the engines of the Santos administration’s economic plans, mining and oil companies, are advancing on Caguán.
The ERPAC paramilitaries want to play an intermediary role between the oil companies and the authorities, while the companies are outsourcing work to local firms.
"There is intense speculation around land," Ávila said, pointing out that ERPAC members have bought up property or forced small farmers off their farms to seize their land, "like what happened along the Atlantic Coast 10 years ago," one of the regions with the largest number of victims of the far-right paramilitary offensive of the time.
As in the immense, sparsely oriented Orinoquia region in eastern Colombia, where the state barely has a presence, land tenure in Caguán is not formalised. In other words, small farmers generally have no land titles, even though in many cases the farm has been in the family for generations. This situation has facilitated the land grab by large landowners and ultra-right paramilitaries.
Enter the FARC, with its restructuring process that requires more funds for a new armed offensive. One of its practices is to charge the oil companies a "tax".
In the area where the Chinese oil company employees were kidnapped, the FARC spread the rumour: "Oil companies are coming. And they’re coming with ‘paracos’ (paramilitaries). And we’re not going to let that happen," Ávila heard on a recent trip to the area, although he said the FARC is not focused on defending the local people, but on making money.
Colombia’s oil and gas regulatory authority, the ANH, created by Uribe, periodically organises the "Colombia Round" in which oil wells are granted in concession.
The Nuevo Arco Iris researcher said the oil companies, thanks to the land grab situation, "are corrupting everyone" in the area, including mayors, provincial governors, and even governors of indigenous reserves.
Ávila said the situation "is like the Wild West (in the U.S.) two and a half centuries ago – it’s no man’s land, and the idea is ‘save yourself if you can’."
"This process of the undermining and corruption of state institutions has led the FARC to be seen as heroes by part of the population, who were tired of the guerrillas but now see them as a possible solution," he said.
"In that framework, the FARC are becoming spokespersons for the communities," he said. The kidnapping of the Emerald Energy employees "is a message," he added.
Spokespersons for the Chinese government say it is doing everything possible to secure the release of the kidnapped employees.
And the Colombian government? Without naming names, it says it will expel any company that pays extortion payments, or ransom, to the guerrillas. But it has said nothing about the ERPAC.
All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2011.
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