Kidnapping on the Rise in Colombia; Rebels Target Oil Workers

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Kidnapping in Colombia went up 30 percent in the first half of 2011, according to the anti-kidnapping NGO Pais Libre, with numbers pushed up by rebel mass abductions of oil workers.

In the year 2000, Colombia was the kidnapping capital of the world with more than 3,500 registered cases, and thousands more that were never reported. Under the Democratic Security Policy of President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), that number dropped exponentially, down to 213 in 2009. While there have been accusations of corruption within the state anti-kidnapping body, Fondelibertad, and perhaps manipulation of the numbers, there can be no doubt that kidnapping has fallen away to a fraction of the figures seen in 2000. However, a slight increase was seen in 2010, with 282 cases, and the trend for this year is up another 30 percent, the main driver behind this a sharp increase in rebel abductions, particularly of oil workers.

The trend in 2009 and 2010 was that the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) were no longer the principal kidnappers. Common criminals had overtaken the rebels as the main abductors and the kidnapping plague, long a rural phenomenon, was becoming urban. There were two main reasons behind the drop in rebel kidnappings. The first was that the guerrillas were pushed away from the principal urban centers and therefore the biggest pools of potential victims; the second was that, under constant threat of aerial bombardment and increased security force operations, the guerrillas had been forced to become totally mobile, seldom spending consecutive nights in the same place. Dragging around a kidnap victim, seldom in the same peak physical condition as the rebel fighters, became dangerous.

In 2011, however, this trend is being reversed. The FARC have stepped up their kidnapping operations, on the orders of the rebel commander-in-chief alias “Alfonso Cano” (real name Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas), as part of his new guerrilla strategy document Plan 2010. Their principal target is the oil industry.

The first sign of this new rebel policy was seen in March, when the FARC’s 16th Front kidnapped 23 oil workers on contract with the Canadian company Talisman Energy. They were taken in the remote eastern province of Vichada, on the border with Venezuela, home to coca crops and rebel drug export routes. All but one of the workers were released on the same day, with the final victim being liberated at the end of July. It is not known if any ransom was paid.

Then in June three Chinese workers and their translator, working with the British firm Emerald Energy, were snatched from their vehicle in the southern province of Caqueta, long a rebel stronghold. It seems the rebels are demanding a three million dollar ransom for their release.

Most recently, at the end of July, five workers on contract for the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation were kidnapped in the department of Arauca on the Venezuela border. They were released a few days later, in a rebel operation which, sources told InSight Crime, was related to a failure to meet extortion demands.

The FARC has combined the kidnapping of oil workers with an increase in attacks on oil and gas pipelines and energy infrastructure, suggesting that Cano’s policy is designed to undermine the government’s claim that it is now safe to invest in Colombia and thus deter foreign investment, which has been one of the major factors in boosting the economy. Oil production is also currently as record levels, with the government promising that output will soon exceed a million barrels a day.

However it is not just the FARC that are engaging in mass kidnappings. The new generation of narco-paramilitary groups, called BACRIMs (“bandas criminals” – criminal gangs) by the government, are also involved. In April, 10 people were taken by heavily armed men from a farm in Sopetran, in the northern province of Antioquia. As investigations into the kidnapping advanced, it became clear that those abducted had links to the drug trade, and it was believed that their abductions were related to an unpaid drug debt, or fighting between rival gangs linked to the Medellin mafia, the Oficina de Envigado. The bodies of those kidnapped were found towards the end of May in a mass grave not far from where they had been snatched, the corpses bearing signs of torture.

Another factor feeding kidnapping this year is the fact that there are regional elections in October. There have already been at least three cases of local politicians being kidnapped, perhaps to pressure them into either withdrawing from the race, or promising to work with illegal factions should they win public office.

What is clear is the kidnapping is again becoming a significant problem in Colombia, and yet another headache for President Juan Manuel Santos, already under pressure on the security front as the FARC increase actions across the country.

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