BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) carried out an attack to an electrical tower in Cajapi in the Tumaco municipality of the southwestern department of Nariño on Aug. 16, six days after another strike left Tumaco without power.
A day earlier, three workers of the Centrales Eléctricas de Nariño power company died in a rural area in Tumaco when they entered a landmine field without realizing it, while they were working to restore power.
The Tumaco incident comes after a series of attacks carried out by the FARC against an oil pipeline and electrical towers in the northern department of Norte de Santander on Aug. 14.
The strikes on Colombia’s energy supply by groups such as the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have radically increased the past few months. From January to June of this year the terrorist groups have launched 80 attacks to oil pipelines and electrical towers, according to the Ministry of Defense, compared with 62 over the same period in 2011.
Oil pipelines attacks have increased dramatically. From January to June 2012, there have been 67 bombings, a 253% increase compared to the same period of 2011, when terrorist groups launched 19 attacks. Colombian Oil company Ecopetrol reported these attacks have caused it to produce, on average, 11,000 fewer oil barrels daily.
Meanwhile, there have been 14 engineers kidnapped and two murdered so far this year by terrorist groups, according to media reports. On Aug. 13, the ELN released one of the engineers, Gina Uribe, along with a female journalist, to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Carlos Rafael Castro, 45, an engineer from the department of Arauca, worked for Ecopetrol for eight years before quitting in August of last year because he feared he’d be targeted by terrorist groups.
“I didn’t feel safe [in my job],” he said. “The companies are not to blame and they pay good salaries to field engineers. But my safety comes first, and that’s why I quit.”
Castro said he worries about the production losses in the wake of these attacks, specifically those suffered by the otherwise vibrant Colombian oil industry, which, according to Ecopetrol, had to lower its production forecast from 800,000 barrels per day to 780,000 by the end of the 2012.
“[The FARC and the ELN are] costing the country millions of dollars,” he added. “They’re provoking wariness among foreign investors and harassing those of us who work honestly. And of course, they’re kidnapping and extorting the entire energy, oil and mining sectors in Colombia.”
The reason behind the rise in the number of attacks is that terrorist groups such as the FARC and the ELN have changed their strategy for generating cash, according to the “National Security in Colombia 2011” report published by the Center for Security and Democracy at the Universidad Sergio Arboleda.
“[The terrorist groups] have intensified their extortion activities in order to compensate for the drop in income from trafficking drugs. At the same time, they have increased their use of common criminals – all of them using violence to detract from the economic activities that of late have shown to be the most dynamic, such as mining, energy and oil sectors,” the document stated.
The terrorist groups can demand as much as US$30,000 in extortion payments from companies so the guerrillas won’t attack them or abduct their workers, according to Colombian daily El Tiempo.
Gustavo Sánchez, 36, an engineer at the Nariño Electric Plants (CEDENAR) whose job is to restore electricity after attacks, said too often the government’s security efforts aren’t good enough to protect the oil industry from being bullied by terrorist groups.
“The government covers the areas that are attacked, but most of the time security forces aren’t there at the times of attacks,” he said. “When I’m in the field with my crew on a maintenance round, we’re often stopped and interrogated by FARC soldiers. Many times, I’ve been certain that I’ll be kidnapped but I’ve been saved simply because my rank isn’t high enough. However, I know the FARC has kidnapped officials in the oil and mining sectors.”
During a visit to Rionegro in the department of Antioquia in late July, President Juan Manuel Santos said terrorist groups have no choice but to attack the fastest-growing sector in Colombia.
“In my opinion the FARC and the ELN don’t combat the armed forces openly because they can’t, as it’s easier for them to resort to pure terrorism,” Santos said. “As terrorists, they’ve found the mining, energy, and oil sectors to be the easiest way of hurting the country’s economy.”
But the government is determined to end the terrorist groups’ impact on the economy, Mining and Energy Minister Mauricio Cárdenas said.
“We repudiate all terrorist acts because they hurt the most vulnerable population in the country, which demonstrates these terrorist groups have lost all respect for human dignity and welfare of Colombians,” he said.
In response to FARC attacks, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón pledged that by February 2013, seven new National Army battalions will be deployed to protect the country’s energy infrastructure, on top of the 11 already in place.
“It means that we’re increasing our current capacity by 40%,” Pinzón said, adding the new security force will also be reinforced with helicopters, airplanes and armored vehicles.
Meantime, National Navy troops stationed in Tumaco deactivated three improvised explosive devices, containing 66 pounds of TNT that were place in a electrical tower near Cajapi on the night of Aug. 16.
So far this year, the National Navy has deactivated 650 pounds of explosives in the Pacific coast area of Colombia.
The National Army detained on Aug. 13 four suspects in connection with the explosion of an electrical tower in Buenaventura in the department of Cauca that left 80,000 customers without power for two days. Three terrorists were killed during the attack by security forces.
“[The] entire command of the [FARC’s Manuel Cepeda Vargas] front was practically dismantled and it’s a group that was practicing brazen terrorism,” Pinzón said. “They caused the destruction of the tower, which crippled the power supply [in Buenaventura].”
Nevertheless, the attacks have not altered the commitment on the part of Santos’s government to expand access to electricity nationwide.
A total of 53,000 families who live in rural areas have been provided access to electricity so far this year, while 676,900 families were added to the residential gas system.