Monday, May 17, 2004

And in other news that has slipped under the radar:
Last fall, the United States and Colombia launched an extraordinary military operation that sent thousands of troops into Arauca, a remote region of this South American country plagued by warring rebel factions and the cocaine trade.

By outward appearances, Operation Red Moon opened a new front in the two countries' long war on drugs.

This time, however, the fight also was over oil.

U.S.-trained Colombian troops, backed by U.S. intelligence and private contractors, unleashed the offensive to stop rebel attacks on a pipeline that Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. depends on to transport oil. They also had another goal, company officials said: secure an area deep in the heart of rebel territory so Occidental could explore a new field believed to hold 20 million barrels of oil.

The three-month campaign was carried out under a little-noticed shift in U.S. policy in Colombia after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The United States had previously confined its role in Colombia to battling drugs. But with the Bush administration urging a global war on terrorism, Congress lifted restrictions on counterinsurgency aid to allow the U.S. to help Colombia fight its leftist groups, who are listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations.

Arauca and its oil were the first big test of the new policy. The U.S. regarded the hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties Colombia received from Oxy's oil operations as vital to shoring up its ally.

Colombia's stability, in turn, was seen as crucial to a region that had become one of the most important and reliable sources of U.S. oil imports. Latin America — including Mexico — long ago surpassed the volatile Middle East as the No. 1 supplier of oil to its northern neighbor.

Colombia and two of its neighbors — Ecuador and Venezuela — were among the top 15 oil suppliers to the United States in 2002, according to the Energy Department. If Colombia collapsed under the weight of civil war and the drug trade, the trouble could easily spread to those two countries. Venezuela, the biggest supplier of the three, poses a particularly acute problem for Washington. The U.S. has been tangling regularly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fiery leftist.

"If the Colombian state can't assert itself and take care of its territory, then regional security is undermined," said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "A variety of U.S. goals in the region are compromised, and the overall security of the U.S. is undermined."

But human rights groups say the new U.S. policy in Colombia repeats a common error in Washington's dealings with Latin America: To protect its own interests, the U.S. is taking sides in an internal conflict and embracing a government with a spotty human rights record — echoes of its close alliance with former military regimes in El Salvador and Chile.

The groups acknowledged that the U.S.-backed crackdown in Arauca had resulted in fewer attacks on the pipeline, but at the expense of basic democratic freedoms.

Mass arrests of politicians and union leaders have become common. Refugees fleeing combat have streamed into local cities. And killings have soared as right-wing paramilitaries have targeted left-wing critics.

"Everyone here is terrified," said Martin Sandoval, a left-wing activist and former provincial assembly member. "There is no freedom of expression, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of anything."