Private security, Colombia style

Before coming to Colombia, I knew that multinational oil and gas companies used private security guards backed up by the Colombian military. I did not know that the private security officers are literally in the driver’s seat while the military literally takes the back seat. This is something I learned in the booming Llanos basin earlier this week.

It’s not the sort of thing you learn if you contact Pacific Rubiales Energy Corp. and request a tour of their field and get flown the 200 km from Bogotá on a small plane in 45 minutes, with charming overhead views of the pastoral countryside. It is the sort of thing one learns when visiting with an embittered former farmer who is now a labour activist for oilfield contractors, whose family sold a little parcel of land to an oil company to develop the pictured well in what is no longer simply some finca in the middle of nowhere but is instead “the Jaguar field.” He and his siblings can’t afford to farm anymore, since prices in the region have shot up with the presence of oil money, while prices for farm goods haven’t risen. I did not know that Dutch disease could affect a single town, but there it is.

This farmer wanted to show the effects of oil development on the native wetlands where he and his family have counted 15, 25, or even 35 species of parrots, the numbers rising with each telling. He made the unwise choice of parking on oil company property rather than blocking the road with the 4×4.

According to time stamps on my camera, from the time we got out of the pickup to when the army arrived, 12 minutes passed. That is impressive, given as how we were an hour’s drive from nowhere. But the soldiers didn’t arrive in government vehicles. Instead they arrived in a pair of white pickups, a Mazda and a Toyota. The first disgorged four Military Forces of Colombia infantrymen with their AR-15s and digital cameras and uniforms straight outta Fort Knox. The second had five. Each car was driven by a man in a light blue shirt with a badge from the Cara Cara project of Cepcolsa, the local affiliate of Cepsa, a Spanish oil company. These men don’t work for Cepcolsa, but rather for a contract security company. And in this case, the security company is accompanied all day by a few of Colombia’s 200,000 active-duty troops.

The army recruits were all perfectly nice kids, very polite. In an unguarded moment, one of them said they may be Colombian army, but it’s the multinationals who call the shots. “Son los multinacionales que mandan.” He shrugged. They serve a couple years and move on, and that’s life. They have a serious mission, as Colombian oil pipeline attacks are up this year (37 in southern Putumayo department alone) and the oil industry is a big driver of the Colombian economy right now. But it was clear pretty quickly that we weren’t there to cut pipelines.

So, after all that, was there environmental damage? I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but it’s really hard for a non-specialist to tell on a first visit. What’s clear is that this is a fragile environment. In the background is a morichal. Morichals are oases on the wet savannah where moriche palms naturally cluster. These springs often create little streams with frogs and fishes. The locals in the Colombian and Venezuelan llanos call them “birthplaces of water.” At this one, we saw dozens of parrots and macaws, but the light sucked so no good photos to share.

This oil well’s surface equipment is atop a little gravel and concrete platform. The natural direction of runoff is toward a ditch around the edge of the site. Water in that ditch is channelled into a little concrete pool called a skimmer (see photo, which is clickable for a big version), from which it drains to the morichal. Normally the site’s pollution is just construction waste. If there is ever a problem with the well or its pipelines, that would be bad. The local we were with said that dark lines in the skimmer were evidence of crude flowing there, but without any expertise, I can’t say it was. All I know is that is one very nice place for an oil well.

In the end, we did get out of there without incident. The military people told us to stay and await the police. But the police took forever to arrive. We couldn’t figure out the truth: Why were we being told to wait for the cops? Was it because we were a couple foreign journalists, as they told us? Or was it because our hosts were union activists, as the unionists said? At last, one of the union guys heard soldiers saying the police were lost trying to find the well. He got us back in the truck and drove off. For all their weapons, the soldiers don’t have the right to detain people who aren’t doing anything. And where we went? A story for another time.


8 thoughts on “Private security, Colombia style

  1. locojhon

    Great story with a happy chapter ending with an even better tease.
    Can’t wait for ‘another time’ to come around…

  2. Dr. Faustus

    Thanks for writing that interesting story. The oil boom in Colombia is a fascinating topic.

    1. Kepler

      I will definitely buy the book and hope to get a signature from Setty. I have only requested twice signatures from other writers and I got them.

  3. ColombiaGringo

    This was an interesting piece that I enjoyed reading, and with your permission I’d like to make some comments.
    Having lived in Colombia since 2007 I have witnessed a significant improvement in the security and safety throughout the country and especially in the energy industry arena. What you witnessed was not actually a multinational security member directing Colombian Military, but the military (government) supporting the multinationals. In the event that this team comes across some sort of attack or sabotage attempt the military is there to react as the, often foreign or with overseas experience, security member may not have the authority or resources to react. Most of these security type folks are type A personalities with extensive experience, we can assume a young military recruit will be a follower in this case, and perhaps comment such as “Son los multinacionales que Mandan”. They have been taught and drilled to follow and respect seniority. In addition these wells would be considered important if not strategic resources in a country where terrorist / rebel / insurgent activities are still somewhat commonplace.
    Supporting Multinationals’, a necessary evil you might call it because without this support and protection the industry would not be growing as it currently is, or at all. My take is that your post title, “Private security, Colombia style” is a little disingenuous or lacking in objectivity as no alternative is considered. As little as five+ years ago you would not have been in Los Llanos without your own private security unless you were looking to hook up with…….
    In regards to your union activist encounter, it may well be true that he is being watched, most industries throughout the world would watch out for a “potential or possible” threat. On the other hand I would not doubt for a minute that a foreign journalist could raise the same level of interest in “el pueblo”. Which brings me back to the “necessary evil”, in this case the oil industry. What is the moral and right thing to do to remove the bitterness of the local former farmer et al? I don’t know, any areas where you have increases in industry suffer from increases in day to day costs, demand increasing ahead of supply etc. With no ill will towards the former farmer I suspect he feels duped by the purchasers of his land for not explaining many things or not paying enough. Did he have to sell? Perhaps all the imagined or perceived benefits of selling to the oil industry did not materialize.
    The skimmer, a very basic water treatment setup, your refer to basically skims the oil floating on the water after settling, then the skimmed water (presumably free of oil if the skimmer is doing its job and has the capacity to handle liquids increase during the rainy season) is drained to the morichal. It’s hard to tell based on your photo but that area looks pristine compared to other wells I have been to in Colombia and Venezuela.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      Gringo – I agree with almost everything you say. Just a couple points:

      I don’t see how this headline was judgmental. This was just how private security works in Colombia. It has the overt support of the government. I’m curious why you thought the headline unfair.

      Your explanation of the military’s role makes sense from an operational point of view, but misses the longer-term effect of having the military in the back seat. Greg Weeks recently pointed to some thinking on the topic.

      As far as the former farmer’s bitterness, there are two things that have pissed off a lot of farmers in the area. The oil boom-driven inflation, which drives everyone off the farms, and the fact that no one has paved the road to the Rubiales field. More on that another day.

      But really, none of this situation was all that big of a deal. Gotta say that for soldiers in a war zone — in a country where almost 500 die in action every year — the Colombian soldiers were very nice and friendly. It was all just an odd experience, and one that gives a bit of insight into the reality on the ground of the Colombian oil boom.

  4. westslope

    “He and his siblings can’t afford to farm anymore, since prices in the region have shot up with the presence of oil money, while prices for farm goods haven’t risen. I did not know that Dutch disease could affect a single town, but there it is.” -setty

    Which prices did shoot up? I’m trying to imagine how how embittered former farmer was driven out of business? Was he running a hacienda or a finca? Did his sons prefer the living wage offered by oil company contractors to subsistence wages offered by their father?

    Or did the father find that the salary paid by USO or some other local union exceeded his return as a farmer?

    FWIW, the Dutch Disease refers to economy-wide, macroeconomic effects of resource booms. The purported local effects of resource booms are common enough though. It is now uneconomic to construct upgraders and refineries in Alberta because input costs are so high, in large part due to the torrid pace of development.

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