Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

Playing the Flute

Oil spills in Colombia

María Cecilia Mosquera doesn’t hide her scars. A survivor of Colombia’s decades-long conflict, she was wearing a bright-yellow short-sleeved top when I met her in Medellín. The T-shirt, which bore the French word for love in white across the chest, revealed burn wounds that had healed into resin-like whorls on her hands and forearms. One night in 1998, a few National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla fighters carried out what should have been a routine bombing on the Ocensa pipeline near Mosquera’s small village, located more than one hundred miles outside Medellín. By then the ELN had been conducting its pipeline-bombing campaign for more than a decade. But that night the crude that poured into a nearby river, along with its abundant fumes, erupted in flames, barreling into an inferno that engulfed the town and killed eighty-four people. Mosquera survived.

The village, called Machuca, is an isolated hamlet of fishermen and artisanal miners, called barequeros, who pan the river for small amounts of gold. It was mid-October, after midnight, when members of the ELN set off dynamite to rupture the pipeline. Although pipeline attacks were not an uncommon occurrence in the area, it quickly became clear that this one was different. The pipeline was on a slope across the river from Machuca, and when it cracked, it sent as much as 21,000 gallons of oil down into the water that coursed toward town. It also released a cocktail of gases and volatile liquids that included ethane, propane, and butane. The smell drifted through the streets, and then a few minutes later, an unknown spark blew the town apart.

Mosquera told me that she woke up and opened her door to see a column of flame rising toward the sky and burning with such blinding intensity that the houses lit up as though it were midday. “It’s the end of the world!” she screamed at her children, telling them to flee. She ran toward her husband, Arturo, and shouted at him to get up, but he didn’t respond. She had to push her way through the burning house to escape. Later, Mosquera learned that her family was gone—her infant daughter perished alongside Arturo in the conflagration, and her two older children died from their injuries a few weeks later in a hospital in Medellín. After months of therapy for her own burns, Mosquera returned to Machuca, where she looked out the window of her rebuilt house one morning and saw, sitting in the sunshine across the way, one of the men she had heard blew up the pipeline. She was filled with rage.

Aerial photograph of La Pesquera by Hanna Wallis

A few weeks after I met Mosquera, in late 2019, I traveled to the eastern department of Arauca; pipeline attacks continue to be a regular occurrence in Colombia, and Ecopetrol, the state oil company, had agreed to fly me in one of its chartered helicopters to see the latest spill sites. From above, the pools of oil looked like a mistake, etched into lime-colored fields cleaved by a cord of river. Black isn’t a color you usually encounter in the grasslands. Distortion from the chopper blades gave the view a shimmering patina, and a band of cumulus edged toward the horizon. Four days had passed since the last pipeline bombing, and a lake of glistening crude stagnated in the savanna. We were flying low, around 3,000 feet. Lazaro Castillo, speaking into his headset, asked the pilot to circle around, and the helicopter dropped down and angled back.

It was a clear day in October. There had already been nearly three dozen oil spills in Colombia since the beginning of the year, and Castillo, an Ecopetrol employee, was showing me the damage. For more than three decades, blowing up Colombia’s oil pipelines has been a key combat strategy of guerrilla groups. Even though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a cease-fire, which came into effect in 2016, and the country has committed itself to a sputtering if impassioned peace process, a group of dissident FARC members declared that they were rearming last year. The lesser-known but apparently more truculent ELN, which had been in stilted peace talks of its own with the government until conservative President Iván Duque took office in 2018, continues operating, often from neighboring Venezuela.

By the time we flew over, the pipeline that runs from the nearby oil fields in Caño-Limon to the coastal town of Coveñas had been out of operation more days than not since the start of the year. Ecopetrol’s subsidiaries manage the pipeline, and until last year the Texas petroleum company Occidental, or Oxy, operated the oil fields. An ELN commander told me that, sensitive to the poor publicity some of the larger spills have caused, the guerrillas tried to shift to denting the pipes rather than puncturing them, but there were still 107 pipeline attacks during 2018, some 89 of which targeted the Caño-Limon-Coveñas conduit. Since it started operating, in 1986, the pipeline has been attacked 1,495 times. It has been punctured so frequently that locals jokingly call it “the flute.”

Colombia’s oil industry is relatively small, accounting for less than 1 percent of global production. Still, it yields considerable profit, and the emergence of Ecopetrol’s operations at the Caño-Limón oil field, one of the country’s largest, fostered the rise of the ELN back in the 1980s. The foreign firms that were brought in were ripe for extortion. “The oil companies were pragmatic, obviously. You arrive and say, ‘Who’s in charge here if the state isn’t?’” Sergio Lopera, a petroleum researcher at the National University of Colombia, explained. “If a guy shows up with a gun and says he’s in charge, it’s no problem, you just have to pay up. That’s how this country works.”

Colombian magazine Semana reported that four engineers who worked for the German company Mannesmann were kidnapped in 1983 and ransomed for a rumored $8 million, a sum that saved the ELN from the brink of collapse after a series of bad operational defeats in the country’s interior. Whether because of that success or the relative ease of targeting pipelines that were nearly impossible to fully secure, bombing the country’s oil-transport network became one of the ELN’s preferred tactics. The goal is to disrupt the country’s economic life, particularly a sector of it that so directly enriches the government against which the guerrillas have pitted themselves. In communiqués, the ELN insists that it believes in protecting the environment, but considers disrupting natural resources extraction to be an important tool in the fight against capitalism. “To the oligarchy, imperialism or corporations, the only thing that matters is profit,” a commander of the ELN’s western forces, who went by the alias Uriel, told me. “They are only affected by this kind of pillage.” The guerrillas also demand benefits to communities affected by environmentally damaging industries, but this has mostly been a chimera. (Uriel was killed by the military in October.)

From afar, the oil below the helicopter looked like the shadow of a cloud on the vast green plains. As we drew nearer, it was possible to make out a trough that ran along one side of the pools, collecting syrupy crude in a bulwark against its spread. Adjacent to the oil sat a neat town of corrugated-roof houses arranged along gridded dirt streets. Castillo told me that the town was called La Pesquera. One of the peanut-hued rivers that snaked through the landscape just a few miles beyond it marked the border with Venezuela; four miles up the pipeline were the oil fields.

If La Pesquera seemed unfavorably located, it didn’t have a long history to look back on to search for blame. Many of the 300 or so families who live there were displaced by the armed struggle among guerrilla groups like the ELN, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian military. Populated by people who fled the Caribbean coast or other parts of the department—Arauca was and continues to be an ELN stronghold—the village itself is an artifact of the conflict, just like the 3.7 million barrels of oil that have been spilled from the Caño-Limon pipeline since the 1980s.

That amount of oil is the equivalent of nearly fourteen Exxon Valdez spills, and yet, since it has spewed across the soils and rivers of a land riven by conflict in small if constant amounts, it has gone largely unexamined. Colombia’s scientists haven’t devoted much in the way of resources to studying the long-term impact of these spills, which often take place in remote areas. Instead, Ecopetrol has become sentinel, cleanup crew, and spill archivist all in one.

When we flew over the spill site next to La Pesquera, Ecopetrol had had pipeline repair teams ready to go for days, but they were lounging in an air-conditioned airport hangar waiting for the Colombian military to secure the area and give them the go-ahead. Instead of flying to a rupture site, another repair crew boarded our helicopter and accompanied us to a pump station, where they unloaded their backpacks and rubber boots under the watch of armed soldiers. From there they would make their way to the pipeline by land. Just the previous week, a soldier was killed and an Ecopetrol subcontractor injured in a firefight with ELN combatants. After we dropped off the crew, the helicopter circled briefly over the oil pools that encroached on La Pesquera, but we couldn’t land. Castillo told the pilot to fly on to the next spill site, just a few miles away.

Battalions from Colombia’s infrastructure-protection company, Plan Meteoro, patrol the pipeline in Arauca to minimize bombings, casting the Colombian military in the incongruous role of environmental advocate. The ELN “is one of the greatest perpetrators of ecocide on the planet,” a Colombian Army general named Luis Felipe Montoya told me, before suggesting that if the guerrillas were held to the same standard as Exxon after the 1989 spill, they would owe the Colombian state $57 billion. Just one report from 2003, produced by the Strategic Studies Institute, the U.S. Army’s research think tank, estimated that the ELN and FARC pipeline bombings on Caño-Limón-Coveñas were responsible for $450 million in lost revenue in a single year, “plus significant ecological damage.”

One afternoon in Medellín, I asked the army’s former second-in-command, Major General Mario Augusto Valencia Valencia, about the support he receives from the U.S. to protect the pipelines. He demurred from specifics, saying that the U.S. military contributes training and logistics to help fight terrorists—the ELN is considered a terrorist group by both the U.S. and Colombia governments—but isn’t directly involved with securing the pipeline. At the height of the country’s drug war, the U.S. was pouring millions of dollars into protecting the country’s oil infrastructure. In 2003 and 2004, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the U.S. spent more than $200 million protecting the Caño-Limón-Coveñas pipeline alone, a decision that was likely facilitated, at least in part, by Occidental Petroleum’s outlay of $8.6 million in lobbying expenditures between 1996 and 2000, part of which was to persuade the U.S. Congress to support military assistance for Colombia. Last year, Congress appropriated $418 million in assistance to Colombia.

Although the military’s presence in Arauca probably does prevent some spills from occurring, what happens to the crude once it’s released is almost entirely up to Ecopetrol. More than one observer told me, with no apparent irony, that Ecopetrol leads the world in oil spill remediation technology. Along the Caño-Limón-Coveñas, the company maintains ninety-seven control points on the waterways that skirt the pipeline, including half a dozen diversion sites that are constantly staffed and equipped with booms and skimmers. If the oil seeps into the soil, the company’s cleanup crews make boreholes to pool the crude in dark puddles and pump it out, then add commercially produced bacteria to break it down. The process can take months. An Ecopetrol biologist who led the cleanup efforts told me that the company is extremely effective at removing the oil, but that the afterlife of the spill wasn’t the company’s responsibility. In effect it’s no one’s. “Of course, there’s a long-term impact,” Colombia’s former environment minister Manuel Rodríguez Becerra told me. “But there have been so many attacks that the country doesn’t have the resources to evaluate the damage. That’s the truth.”

A year after the pipeline explosion, Mosquera’s friend Maribel Agualimpia helped start a small radio station where they could talk about what happened. At night, Agualimpia hosted a program called Buenas Noches, Corazón, playing love songs and ballads to lift people’s spirits. Beyond the town’s borders, the pipeline explosion faded from the news and into the fabric of atrocities that shroud everyday life. No one had a monopoly on murder. The Colombian Air Force dropped a cluster bomb on a town near the Caño-Limón-Coveñas pipeline, killing seventeen villagers, and Occidental Petroleum, along with a U.S.-based surveillance company, allegedly helped identify the target (a case brought against them in the U.S. by a survivor was eventually dismissed, and Occidental denied responsibility or wrongdoing). Mosquera met a woman named Diana Sofía Giraldo, who started an organization for victims and persuaded her to start telling her story. “She didn’t speak for a long time,” Giraldo told me, “because she was convinced her grief didn’t matter to anybody.” Once Mosquera began talking, though, people listened. She has an unaffected air and a raw directness that has withstood increasing attention from media and politicians. When she met the Pope during his visit to Colombia in 2017, she asked him to pray for her to find forgiveness.

Mosquera has traveled to multiple meetings with former ELN fighters since the bombing that took her family, but though the guerrillas say they have asked for absolution from survivors, they have never made the gesture publicly in Machuca. On one occasion, Mosquera met an ex-combatant of the ELN who seemed genuinely repentant, and she held his grandchild in her arms and was reminded of holding her own son when he was small and chubby. But she still believes that her town and its tragedy have been forgotten, that the eddies of conflict have swept things like pipeline blasts into the purgatory of memory without expiation. Giraldo played me a WhatsApp message that Mosquera recorded for the president after he visited Machuca for the twentieth-anniversary memorial service. “Nobody does anything,” she told him. After she had given me the account of her story, in Medellín, we went out to lunch and she showed me old photos of her children that she kept on her phone. She smiled as she looked at them. Then we made our way back, threading through busy streets and the honking commotion of afternoon traffic.

The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.

More from

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now