Just as quickly as 23 oil field workers were kidnapped in Vichada, one of Colombia's most rural and isolated departments, 21 of them were released the following Tuesday morning. Another worker reportedly escaped Monday night, just a few hours after being taken captive. At least one worker is still being held hostage, presumably for ransom.
So far it is unclear which of the two armed groups active in Vichada – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) or the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano - ERPAC) – are responsible. But the kidnapping of workers linked to oil and gas companies is a trademark practice of the FARC.
And if the FARC's 16th Front is indeed responsible for the kidnapping, it is a particularly bold move by a unit that has suffered several serious setbacks since 2008. This type of mass kidnapping is a throwback to the guerrillas' peak of power under Jorge Briceño Suarez, alias 'Mono Jojoy,' who was killed in a September military bombing campaign. In targeting workers connected to a foreign company, the FARC are attempting to demonstrate they can still do much to make life difficult for the government, even with diminished resources.
The workers were employed by a subcontractor of Canadian oil firm Talisman, and were presumably collecting seismic data in Talisman's Block 8 concession area, which covers a heavily forested area between the departments of Vichada and Guainia.
The 16th Front has long been entrenched in Vichada's municipality of Cumaribo (see map below), where most of Block 8 is located. Combats between this Front and the army's 28th Jungle Brigade has been on the rise the past few months, the most recent skirmish taking place on February 19, leaving one guerrilla dead and another one wounded.
It is possible that the 16th Front made the rare (and bold) move of kidnapping the oil workers in retaliation for the ongoing pressure from the 28th Jungle Brigade. In some ways, the government offensive in Vichada has seriously weakened the 16th Front, pushing them into the southwest corner of the department, trapped behind the Guaviare river between the two towns of Mapiripana and Barrancominas.
This is far away from the 16th Front's former stronghold in northern and central Vichada, where many coca cultivations and drug trafficking routes have been taken over by the ERPAC, who moved in after the FARC were pushed southwards by the military.
All of the hostages, save one, were released in less than 24 hours, indicating that it is possible the 16th Front did not even have the logistical resources to take care of such a large group of people. The days of the FARC moving herds of hostages through the jungle and building elaborate, long-term jungle camps are gone. Now, the guerrillas operate in small, fast and mobile units; keeping such a large group of hostages would have been a serious burden and would have attracted attention from the Colombian Air Force.
Kidnapping is not common in Vichada, where only four cases were registered between 2004 and 2008. Considering that Vichada is one of the least developed departments in Colombia and does not even have a single paved highway, criminal groups like the ERPAC and the FARC likely view kidnapping as unprofitable, due to the lack of wealthy or high-profile targets.
But there is one thing that does make kidnapping more attractive and that is the harassment of workers connected to multinationals like Talisman. This is a sure way of making the Santos administration very, very nervous: International investment has risen significantly in Colombia after the military was able to move in and secure the roads in troubled departments like Meta. A perceived backslide in security could make foreign investors pull out and bring a halt to Colombia's current oil and mining boom.
Other big oil and gas projects in Colombia have faced much harassment from rebel forces. A total of 31 attacks against oil and gas pipelines were carried out last year, the prime targets being the Limon-Covenas and Transandino pipelines. InSight has also heard reports that in Casanare and Arauca engineers working on the construction of the Bicenterio oil pipeline, intended to be the largest in the country, have already been facing extortion threats from the ELN, reportedly operating in civilian clothing.
The 16th Front has lost much of its strength since 2008, experiencing mass desertions after the Colombian Air Force killed former leader alias 'Negro Acacio,' who used drug money to transform 16th Front into one of the FARC's most powerful and wealthy units. Now the 16th Front is believed to number no more than between 100 and 150 combatants, able to take advantage of Vichada's complex network of rivers and jungles to continue trafficking coca base and evade the security forces.
If the 16th Front is responsible for the kidnapping of the oil worker, it is doubtful that the guerrillas did it just for the ransom money. The psychological impact of the operation – a demonstration to the government that the FARC are still willing and able to harass extremely lucrative oil and gas projects – is much more valuable in the long run.
View InSight Map: FARC - Areas of Influence in a larger map