The recent arrest of the FARC's alleged "extortion mastermind" shows that the guerrillas are intent on expanding a revenue stream which will make Colombia's government very nervous: the extortion of multinational companies, with a special focus on the oil sector.
Fardy Edilson Parra, alias "Brayan," was reportedly arrested with more than 130 letters, addressed to a wide range of Colombian and multinational companies. He is accused of organizing extortion schemes for the Eastern Bloc of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), active in Colombia's richest oil-producing regions, including the departments of Caqueta and Meta.
The papers found in Parra's possession appear to consist of a stock letter, each copy addressed to specific businesses and stamped with the FARC's logo. The text reportedly asks "businessmen, oilmen, palm oil traders and ranchers" to "collaborate" with the FARC's "002 Law;" a euphemism for extortion. Victims were told they had to send "economic support" of 200 to 500 million pesos (between $111,600 and $279,000) to the muncipality of La Uribe, the epicenter of the Eastern Bloc's activities in Meta.
Recipients would have included the Colombian offices of international chains like Microsoft, Nike, and Toyota (presumably addressed to the companies' central offices in Bogota, if they were actually addressed at all).
Others are reportedly local Colombian companies, ranging from beauty salons to lawyers' offices to transport companies. These include one of the FARC's most popular targets of extortion schemes: bus services like Flota Macarena and Expreso Bolivariano, whose vehicles are frequently burned and attacked when traveling through guerrilla territory. Flota Macarena, which serves Colombia's Eastern Plains, the stronghold of the FARC's Eastern Bloc, has reportedly had at least five buses destroyed while en route to Meta this year. The rebels are reportedly demanding that the company pay about 400,000 pesos (about $223) per bus, and another 400,000 pesos for each year that President Alvaro Uribe was in office (eight), during which, according to El Tiempo, the bus company paid the rebels nothing.
But the FARC's intimidation of bus companies -- as well as extortion threats directed against other Colombian businesses and multinationals -- are nothing new. Extortion was the original money-earner for the FARC, long before the group moved into kidnapping and the drug trade in the late 1970s. Companies who are slow in paying the FARC's "war tax" feel the effects: Occidental Petroleum's Caño-Limon pipeline, for example, was bombed 170 times in 2001 alone, as the FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN) attempted to extract payoffs from the multinational.
What does appear new about the FARC's latest round of extortion efforts is the viciousness behind them. In one especially worrying development, a road bomb planted by the FARC killed one employee of a local subcontractor, GeoEnergy, and injured another five, after a company vehicle hit the explosive on August 3. The attack took place in San Vicente del Caguan, center of the FARC's safe haven during the 1999-2002 peace process.·
It's unlikely that this attack was an accidental case of a improvised explosive device (IED) hitting the wrong car. One of the FARC's most experienced military units, the Teofilo Forero Column, is active in San Vicente. If an SUV belonging to an energy company hits a roadside bomb in this area -- a tactic which, so far this year, the FARC have used exclusively against the security forces, not civilians -- it was because the FARC were sending a deliberate message: pay up.
There are plenty of signs indicating that the FARC intend to continue their campaign against oil multinationals, including mass kidnappings and·burned vehicles. But if this campaign turns more violent and we see an increase of similar IED attacks against oil company personnel, it won't necessarily be because the FARC want businesses to pay higher-than-usual "vacunas," or extortion taxes.
Rather, the intent seems to be to increase the pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos' administration, riding the wave of Colombia's current oil boom. Production is rising steadily and may hit one million barrels per day by the end of the year. Accompanying the surge is increased public resentment against the oil drillers in boomtowns like Meta's Puerto Gaitan, where oil subcontractors abused the labor force, sparking a wave of aggressive protests in late July.
In some ways, the rebels' targeting of the oil trade is meant to hit the government where it hurts: that is, one of Colombia's fastest-growing (and most profitable) industries. It is also an attempt by the rebels to curry favor with sections of Colombia's progressive left, who by and large have no interest in establishing links to the rebels, but are hostile towards the increased rate of mining and oil exploration carried out by multinationals on Colombian ground.
If oil production in Colombia wasn't entering such a golden age, it's doubtful that the FARC would have intensified their attacks against the sector. It's also doubtful that the extortion schemes allegedly carried out by alias "Brayan" were the rebels' real moneymakers. Letters to Colombia's local Nike office will probably yield the FARC few, if any, "vacuna" payments. The harassment and kidnapping of oil workers -- and the burning of company vehicles due to unpaid ransom -- is likely a great deal more effective, and something we may see more of, as Colombia's oil continues to gush.