Colombia: Civilians paying a high price for oil as conflict worsens

The organisation’s new report Laboratory of War: Repression and Violence in Arauca depicts civilians caught between warring guerrillas, army units and their paramilitary allies.

The crisis in Arauca has been fuelled by the government’s two-year military and security offensive in the area, supported by paramilitaries and powerful international, mainly US, military and economic interests.

US oil giant Occidental Petroleum co-owns an important pipeline that runs through the region, accounting for around 30% of the country’s oil production. Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF also has a share in the venture.

In 2003 the US government approved $99 million to fund protection of the pipeline, including the purchase of helicopters, intelligence and equipment for the army’s XVIII Brigade. Up to 70 members of US Special Forces have been sent to the area to assist in training the Colombian troops.

The armed forces, in collaboration with paramilitary groups, are directly involved in killings, torture and “disappearances”. They have stepped-up efforts to intimidate human rights defenders, peasant leaders and social activists, says the report, often putting them in danger by labelling them as guerrillas or guerrilla sympathisers.

The Colombian armed forces, paramilitaries, and guerrilla groups have all significantly boosted their presence in the department, says the report. This has turned Arauca into one of the most militarised and violent regions in the country.

Paramilitaries, who established a firm foothold in Arauca in the wake of large-scale operations carried out by the Colombian security forces in the area in recent years, continue to kill and threaten civilians despite a year-long self-declared cease-fire.

Amnesty International UK Media Director Lesley Warner said:

“The USA’s support for military units operating in Arauca illustrates how the international community is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Colombia.

'Protection of civilians should take priority over economic and strategic interests, and is the most effective route to security in the region.”

The report also highlights how guerrilla groups, which have a longstanding presence in Arauca, have responded by repeatedly and increasingly breaching international humanitarian law in an attempt to repel the military and paramilitary advance.

Guerrillas are targeting civilians, particularly local state officials, says Amnesty International, issuing “resign or die” threats to mayors and local councillors. They are abusing international humanitarian law by repeatedly carrying out disproportionate attacks on military targets often using low-precision bombs and mortars. These attacks often result in civilian casualties.

In the new report, Amnesty International condemns the government's counter-insurgency strategy in Arauca, which has turned the department into a violent testing ground for many of its new security policies, which form part of its so-called “Democratic Security” strategy.

Lesley Warner said:

“The policies of the Colombian government have led to increasing levels killing and intimidation in Arauca. As is usual in Colombia, it is the civilian population that is suffering the most.

“Arauca is on the front-line of Colombia’s human rights crisis. Far from restoring order, the government's security strategy has made the department an even more dangerous place to live.”

The Colombian government’s security measures include recently introduced anti-terrorist legislation, and Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones, special security areas set up in 2002, which are no longer legally in operation but continue to be used by the security forces to target civilian populations.

The report is available online at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engamr230042004

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