Colombian rebels may be talking peace, but this arms cache found by government soldiers seems more about war. Photogapher: Felipe Caicedo/AFP/Getty Images
Colombian rebels may be talking peace, but this arms cache found by government soldiers seems more about war. Photogapher: Felipe Caicedo/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas are at war with oil. According to the government, rebel groups, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, perpetrated 259 pipeline bombings last year, the highest level in a decade. The FARC and its smaller cousin, the National Liberation Army (or ELN) also kidnapped 16 energy industry workers in 2013.

Worse still, leaders from both groups reportedly agreed in December to jointly sabotage Colombia’s energy infrastructure going forward, to further what ELN guerrilla chiefs have described as a “belligerent stance to confront multinationals and their repressive apparatus: the plunderers and exploiters of natural resources.”

Or, as the legendary FARC commander Ivan Marquez put it in late 2012, the oil industry “is a demon of social and environmental destruction that will turn Colombia into an unviable nation if the people don’t stop it.”

The kicker: These attacks have gotten worse since FARC leaders and the government began peace talks in 2012 to end the country’s half-century conflict. The war on energy signals how desperate the rebels are for leverage at the negotiating table.

The FARC has lost military strength and dozens of leaders over the past decade to increasingly better-trained and better-equipped government forces. Some of those left standing hope a peace deal can save their lives and allow them to run for office in local and national elections. But convincing Colombians that criminals of this caliber deserve a place in politics is a difficult thing to do.

The trick is getting a new reputation. It has been a long time since the FARC and the ELN were seen as freedom fighters defending leftist ideals. Their involvement in the cocaine business, kidnappings for ransom and assassinations of politicians, members of the military and civilians, make it easy for Colombians to rightly classify them as drug-financed terrorists.

That’s where the war on the oil business comes in. Destroying energy infrastructure seems to hurt the government. State-controlled oil company Ecopetrol cited guerrilla attacks as a reason for missing output targets last year, and the security of energy infrastructure has become such an issue that the Colombian military now has 17 battalions dedicated to protecting key industry targets.

Bombs also send the message that the ELN and the FARC are not defeated yet. The FARC wants to prove that negotiating peace doesn’t mean it can’t still wage war, while the ELN wants to show it is enough of a nuisance to be included in peace talks with the government.

Plus, blowing up a pipeline or burning an oil tanker truck is less controversial than, say, parking a car bomb next to a crowded social club in Bogota. Similarly, adopting anti-oil rhetoric and kidnapping workers for ransom may be considered a less dirty method to sustain their fight than drug trafficking.

Naturally, many Colombians resent having to negotiate peace with a gun to their heads. Let's hope they hate hypocrisy just as much. After all, in 2008 a cache of e-mails allegedly found in the computer of deceased FARC leader Raul Reyes revealed that FARC leaders at one point hoped Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez would cut them into a profitable oil deal.

It is rare to see the extreme left in Latin America denounce oil as evil. Cuba’s Castro brothers and their ally regime in Venezuela have had no problem living off of the largess that the oil business provides. It seems that for Latin America’s radical left, oil is evil until they happen to control it.

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter @raulgallegos.)

To contact the author of this article: Raul Gallegos at rgallegos5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.