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IED attack on Colombian oil pipeline in Santander

27 October 2021 Carlos Caicedo

The Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) militant group claimed responsibility on 15 October for an improvised explosive device (IED) attack the day before on an oil pipeline in Colombia's Santander department. The pipeline carries crude oil from the La Cira Infantas field to Barrancabermeja refinery in Santander, a central-northern department of Colombia.

This is the fourth IED attack on oil infrastructure in Santander so far this year. Terrorist attacks near Barrancabermeja are unusual. The city, the hub of Colombia's oil industry, has been free of guerrilla activity since the 1990s, when right-wing paramilitary groups successfully fought and ejected them from the region. Barrancabermeja also has a strong presence of security forces tasked with protecting oil and gas facilities. Some local officials have questioned whether the ELN was behind these attacks. The mayor of Barrancabermeja, Alfonso Eljach, said on 16 October that there was no definitive evidence of ELN culpability, suggesting, instead, that criminal organizations involved in oil bunkering could have caused the explosion that damaged the pipeline.

Significance

IHS Markit assesses that it is likely that the ELN was behind the attack. The modus operandi and the political rationale invoked, including calls for regaining sovereignty over natural resources, as well as demands for a fuel price cut, fit the rebels' practice.

The attacks on the pipeline suggest the ELN has been able to widen its target set, which so far has been concentrated on oil facilities in eastern Colombia (Arauca and Santander del Norte), as well the southwest, particularly the Orito-Tumaco pipeline in Nariño department. It is, however, unlikely that attacks would escalate to include the refinery, as it is protected strongly; we expect the pipeline to be the main target.

If the ELN's involvement in the latest attack is confirmed, it would mark the return of Marxist guerrillas to the area and would fit with a gradual trend seen across the country of insurgent groups gaining footholds in areas that until recently had experienced little insurgent violence. If, instead, the explosion was caused by oil thieves, it would still represent a growing threat, as fuel theft has not been a major issue in Santander.

Posted 27 October 2021 by Carlos Caicedo, Senior Principal Analyst, Latin America Country Risk, IHS Markit

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