Frontline World

COLOMBIA - The Pipeline War, November, 2002

Synopsis of "The Pipeline War"

Interactive Map of Global Oil

Context for the Pipeline War

Civilians Caught in the Crossfire

Occidental Petroleum, BP, and more

Learn More about Colombia

Human Rights, Colombia's Civil War, Media Resources




The Story
Military communicate, Photo of the journalist, People digging pipeline

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A military helicopter rushes soldiers to a ruptured oil pipeline in northern Colombia. Rebels have bombed it once again. From the air, FRONTLINE/World reporter Saira Shah spots a black stain spreading into the green countryside. It's the latest battlefront in the prolonged agony of Colombia's civil war.

General Carlos Lemus tells Shah that the 800–kilometer–long pipeline is a vulnerable target –– easy to spot and almost impossible to defend. Jointly owned by Colombia's state oil company and the Los Angeles–based Occidental Petroleum, the pipeline is attacked routinely by leftist guerrillas.

"Colombian reserves may not be huge," observes Shah, "but as the Middle East becomes more unstable, the United States is desperate for oil on its doorstep." President Bush has just ordered U.S. Special Forces to go to Colombia to train the Colombian army to defend the pipeline.

The new U.S. initiative is part of a $94 million counterinsurgency program approved by Congress. It includes the delivery of helicopters and other military aid.

Occidental and the Colombian government profit from the pipeline, but Shah reports that the oil has brought death and environmental pollution to local farmers. As she arrives at the scene of the latest explosion –– walking carefully to avoid landmines –– Shah comes across a river "absolutely full of oil black with oil."

The army fears an ambush by rebels and soldiers spray the jungle with automatic rifle fire. That night the soldiers turn a farmhouse into an army barracks. The family tells Shah they are at the mercy of the forces battling over the oil.

This area was peaceful until the pipeline was built. The oil attracts rebels, who intimidate villagers and extort money from the construction companies who make the constant repairs. In the town of Aruaca, the drinking water is contaminated by the oil spills, and the mayor must travel in a bulletproof car surrounded by armed bodyguards.

Shah tries to make contact with the leftist rebels, but they only reply in a written communiqué, saying they oppose exploitation of Colombia's oil resources by foreign multinationals. The rebels refuse to answer Shah's questions about how they use oil money to finance their war against the government.

To the south, in a town called Barranca, is the country's largest oil refinery. Rebels controlled the town for years. But a shadowy force of right–wing paramilitaries has driven them out. "Oil should have brought riches to the people of Barranca," says Shah. "Instead it's brought fear and death."

Originally organized by wealthy landowners to protect their business interests, the paramilitaries are now a force of their own. They are conducting what they call "social cleaning" –– eliminating from the area anyone they don't like –– human rights activists, prostitutes, union organizers, homosexuals. In the local paper, Shah finds a death list of some 30 people wanted dead, including Francisco José Campo, a member of CREDHOS (Corporacíon Regional para la Defensa los Derechos Humanos), a human rights organization. Campo tells Shah "about 400 people have been assassinated in the last six months" in Barranca.

The chief of police insists only rebels and rebel sympathizers are being killed in Colombia's ongoing civil war. But when traveling with the police while they're on patrol, Shah discovers that they are doing little or nothing to crack down on the paramilitaries.

Before leaving, Shah visits a graveyard for blown–up oil pipes: "Each piece," she laments, "represents a farm destroyed, a river poisoned or a life lost. The West benefits from Colombia's oil. It's true price is counted not just in dollars, but in human misery."


Saira Shah

Producer / Videographer
Bruno Sorrentino

Bob H. Woodward

Series Producer
Eamonn Matthews