Colombia's Oil Fields
|7th Special Forces Group (ABN)|
Green Berets move into Colombia's oil fields
America has entered Colombia's 38-year civil conflict for the first time, deploying Green Berets to train government troops in a war-torn oil-rich province in the north.
Previous American military aid has been restricted to the war on drugs, but now President George W Bush is spending £60 million to train and equip Colombia's 18th Brigade in Arauca province, one of the most dangerous regions in the country, with both Left-wing guerrillas and Right-wing paramilitaries feeding off its oil wealth.
America has 400 troops in Colombia and a special forces detachment started work in Arauca this week, training local soldiers in helicopter-borne operations, night fighting, and intelligence-gathering.
It has also promised the 18th Brigade 11 Huey helicopters. If the mission proves a success it could provide a template to roll out American involvement across Colombia, half of which is controlled by the warring factions.
Arauca was once an abandoned province near the remote Venezuelan border, where Marxist guerrillas traditionally had a presence and the government in Bogota was happy to leave it to them. But in 1980 oil was discovered and the resulting boom has seen the province nicknamed "Saudi Arauca".
It has become a licence to print money for Marxist guerrillas and their paramilitary foes, who both profit from the 485-mile pipeline to the Caribbean coast.
One fifth of the money earned from the oil in Arauca is given to local government to spend, but the provincial authorities have historically been controlled by the 4,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's second-biggest Marxist army.
On top of the official revenues, international companies have found it easier to pay off the guerrillas than face the threat of disruption. None the less last year the rebels, who control most of the companies who are contracted to clean up spillage from the pipeline, blew it up 170 times.
In the past 15 years the environmental damage from the guerrillas' actions has been vast, with 2.5 million barrels of crude seeping into Colombian soil and rivers, more that 10 times the volume of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
Beyond Barrancabermeja, from where the pipeline carries refined petrol, it is preyed on by the rebel's enemies, the ultra-Right paramilitary army, the United Self Defence Force of Colombia (AUC).
The paramilitaries control the so-called "gasoline cartel" that punctures the pipeline and siphons off petrol, which it sells at bargain prices. Authorities estimate that the paramilitaries have made more than £50 million so far this year from fuel.
The AUC, ELN and Farc, Colombia's biggest Marxist army, are all on Washington's terrorism list and Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, has presented himself as a man on the front line of the international war on terror.
Eight weeks into his term of office, he is trying to re-establish government control over the whole country, and is starting with Arauca, which has been declared a "Zone of Rehabilitation and Consolidation" where, under his emergency legislation, the security forces can arrest without a warrant, impose curfews, search property and restrict movement.
He has also raised taxes to boost military funding, established a civilian spy network and a system of rewards for informants, is arming peasants and increased recruitment for the security forces.
Mr Uribe has pledged to destroy Colombia's drugs industry, which sends more than 500 tons of cocaine and 10 tons of heroin to America every year, but he told Mr Bush that first he needs to defeat the guerrillas and paramilitaries who protect the trade and make a fortune from it.
The result is US troops stepping into another foreign war.