Barrancabermeja is Colombia's petrol capital

Feb 22, 2001 01:00 AM

Jeremy McDermott examines the petrol cartels that tap into Colombia's pipelines and divert the petrol which is then sold at much reduced prices. Two men sit under a lean-to in the stifling heat of Barrancabermeja. Next to them is some scrubland and a rubbish tip in this poor neighbourhood called Boston. But suddenly a small passenger bus pulls up, well off its normal route, and the two men spring into action, scraping away a pile of rubbish to reveal a pit filled with plastic drums of petrol, two of which are swiftly piped into the bus.
This is the petrol cartel at work, a large and lucrative industry, but underground in every sense and not open to casual enquiries. It took three days of chatting to Julio, the leader of the Boston branch of the cartel, to finds out how the system worked.
After discussing in infinite detail the performance of Colombian football players in Britain, he took me deep into the scrubland and showed me the fount of his business -- a metal tap linked directly to thepipeline leaving Barrancabermeja's massive refinery. He explains that making the initial hole in the pipeline is dangerous and difficult, because if the drill gets too hot it can ignite the petrol.
If the insertion point is chosen badly it can crack the pipeline, and if the hole is made too big, then the flow and pressure of the petrol makes it impossible to solder a valve. And then of course it has to be hidden in such a way that the patrols along the pipeline do not find it.

Julio's companion Raul services the steady stream of clients. With practised ease he hoists a plastic drum onto his shoulder, sucks a mouthful of petrol through the pipe to get the flow moving and empties 15 litres (four gallons) into a taxi, whilst the driver peels off a pile of smudged notes.
The cartel prices are under half that of the petrol stations and, in these times of recession in Colombia, the clientele is no longer just the bus and taxi drivers. While I sat with Julio discussing professional fouls, a Cherokee Jeep pulled up and the poor girls of the neighbourhood rushed to have a look at the rich man who had driven in. If he tried to enter this neighbourhood after nightfall he would not leave with his fancy car, Julio said.
The petrol cartel has to pay taxes, but not to the government, or at least not the official government. The local government in most of the poor areas in Barrancabermeja is the guerrillas, and they take their cut of the trade.
In Boston the National Liberation Army, the ELN, has been in charge for many years. The petrol cartel maybe powerful and rich, but it knows better than to defy this Marxist army of more than 4,000 fighters. It is an amicable arrangement.
The ELN ensures that nobody muscles in on the cartel's trade in the area, and the guerrilla presence means that security forces enter the area only very reluctantly, leaving the cartel business to flourish. Last year the state oil company, Ecopetrol estimated that losses through robbery and attacks on the pipeline accounted for more than 13 % of national production, much of which is exported.

Almost 300 tankers were seized carrying stolen fuel, and the Ecopetrol spokesman admitted that this was just a tithe of the real number of vehicles moving stolen petrol around the country.
But on the last meeting with Julio there is activity, excitement and fear in the neighbourhood. The ELN high command has ordered its urban guerrillas to pull out of Boston and join a rural unit.
The organisation is set to start a peace process with the government, and its networks in Barrancabermeja have been hard hit by members of the right-wing Self Defence Forces of Colombia -- a paramilitary army pledged to destroy the guerrillas. But no sooner had the ELN pulled out, than the country's largest rebel force, the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, moved in.
This 17,000-strong guerrilla army will not be driven off by the paramilitaries, and residents expect more bloodshed as the urban conflict escalates. But Julio watches the knots of worried locals, and shrugs his shoulders. "I am a good boy," he says. "I will pay my taxes to whichever illegal army takes control. "Business is business, and as long as I am allowed to continue trading it makes no odds to me."

Source: BBC News
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