ELN Attack On Oil Pipeline Bad Sign For Potential Peace Negotiations

Members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in February, 2000. (AFP/Getty Images)

Members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in February, 2000. (AFP/Getty Images)

by   Blouin News 

On Sunday, June 29, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian insurgent movement, attacked the country’s Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. While there were no fatalities from the attack, 13 individuals were reported injured.

Apart from temporarily halting oil production, the attack also dampened the country’s mood following the recent re-election of President Juan Manuel Santos. A cornerstone of the president’s electoral campaign was a pledge to achieve a lasting peace with Colombia’s two insurgent movements, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the aforementioned ELN. However, the attacks on Caño Limón have caused Colombian citizens and analysts in general to question whether the president’s strategies will be successful.

According to reports, on that Sunday afternoon, insurgent fighters threw an explosive at the camp where workers congregate, not at the pipeline itself. The commander of the Colombian Army, General Jaime Lasprilla, provided more information about the incident via social media: a June 30 tweet explains that the ELN threw a “cylinder bomb” at the workers while they were taking part in mass. Due to the relative high number of injured workers the Colombian Minister of Mining and Energy Amilkar Acosta had a gloomy assessment of the situation, stating that the incident “could have been a massacre.”

The Caño Limón pipeline is 780 kilometers long, starting in the Arauca department and ending in the Coveñas port in Colombia’s Caribbean coast, making it a frequent target of Colombian guerrillas. The late June attack occurred in Arauca, close to Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, but previously the ELN also attacked the pipeline in early May (in Boyacá department). Each time the pipeline is attacked, Colombian authorities must stop the flow of oil and inspect the pipeline. If an oil spill occurs, the local environment would be contaminated, and human life could be affected. Following the aforementioned early May attack, for instance, two Colombian communities, Agualinda and Cubará, were forbidden from drinking water for fear that an oil leak had contaminated local rivers.

The Caño Limón pipeline is a vital part of the Colombian economy. The oil pipeline transports up to 70 thousand barrels of crude oil daily. ECOPETROL, a Colombian state-owned oil company, and Occidental Petroleum Corporation, a Texas corporation, control the pipeline. Occidental’s website explains that “more than 1.2 billion barrels of oil have been produced at Caño Limón since Occidental discovered the field in 1983.” According to ECOPETROL’s website, the Colombian company controls 60% of the oil produced while 40% is owned by Occidental.

The ELN’s attack on the Caño Limón pipeline comes at an awkward moment. In early June, prior to the second round of presidential elections, President Santos declared that he was willing to start negotiations with the ELN. “The political responsibility of this new peace effort falls solely on my shoulders,” the head of state declared. The negotiations between Bogota and the ELN have not officially begun, and it is unclear if the attack on Caño Limón will affect them. In spite of wanting peace via negotiations, President Santos has declared that he will not give the ELN a free pass: on June 30he tweeted “the armed forces will continue the offensive. We will find the culprits of the ELN’s terrorist attack that affected the population of Arauca.”

While President Santos may be willing to extend the ELN an olive branch, most of the Colombian military is skeptical of the ELN. On July 1 General Lasprilla tweeted “ELN: your declarations are contradictory. Liberty and dignity begin by respecting the most sacred right: Life. You do not intimidate us!” This was a strong response to the attacks on Caño Limón. Likewise, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón declared that the ELN’s attack was “cowardly.”

As a final point, it is necessary to mention that July 4 marked the 50th anniversary of the ELN’s creation, and the movement is “celebrating” it by calling for strikes in various departments throughout Colombia. As it is likely that the ELN will continue its attacks and threats against Colombian citizens and infrastructure (i.e. the attack on the Caño Limón pipeline) as part of its anniversary, the peace negotiations between this particular movement and the government may be dead before they even formally begin.

In previous writings I have explained that peace negotiations between Bogotá and some of the country’s numerous insurgent movements have been successful over the past decades. Case in point is the peace accord with the M19 insurgent movement in 1990 and the demobilization of paramilitary groups between 2003 and 2006. Nevertheless, peace accords with the FARC and ELN have proven to be more elusive. Bogotá and the ELN leadership were engaged in negotiations as early as 2002 and 2007, and both times they were unsuccessful.

While we all want peace in Colombia, ELN-Bogota negotiations, if they ever jumpstart, have a very steep mountain to climb before an agreement could conceivably be reached.