A series of attacks on oil pipelines in Colombia’s northeastern department of Santander, for which the ELN has claimed responsibility, could be a show of strength ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.

The Colombian government has offered a reward of 20 million Colombian pesos ($5,000) for any information concerning who was behind a series of recent attacks on Ecopetrol oil infrastructure in Santander.

This came a week after the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) posted a statement on its website, claiming responsibility for four acts of sabotage on infrastructure around the La Cira Infantas oil field near the city of Barrancabermeja.

On October 15, two explosions crippled the Ayacucho Galán 8 pipeline. A month prior, two bombings were orchestrated within hours of one another at nearly the same location. The first explosion destroyed a 12-inch transfer line, while the second targeted a pipeline that moved oil from the El Centro Dehydration Plant to the Barrancabermeja refinery. Production at the fields was temporarily halted as a result.

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The ELN said in its statement that the attacks were meant to “open a debate” about the state’s use of oil resources. Colombia’s guerrillas have long targeted infrastructure belonging to Ecopetrol, Colombia’s majority state-owned oil company.

According to Reuters, 28 incidents have been recorded from 2021 through September. In 2020, Ecopetrol recorded 51 oil infrastructure attacks.

InSight Crime Analysis

While attacks on oil infrastructure are common, it’s notable that the ELN has claimed involvement in these latest attacks in such a public manner – possibly part of a broader strategy to remind those in power of the threat the rebels can pose to the state.

Attacks on oil pipelines are an old modus-operandi for the ELN, which it used liberally during the 1990s, especially in Santander and other regions of Colombia’s Eastern Plains. Extortion of oil companies was also a crucial source of revenue that allowed the armed group to survive during this period.

The geography of these recent attacks is also significant. The Santander region has symbolic value for the ELN, as its birthplace back in the 1960s. The early formation of the group took place in the small villages of San Vicente de Chucurí and Simacota.

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More recently, the group has used attacks on oil pipelines to signal strength at key strategic moments. In 2016, the group attacked the country’s second-largest oil pipeline, the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, in an attempt to pressure the government into peace negotiations, which were being explored at that time.

As a strategy, this mirrored the use of pipeline bombings by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) to place pressure on the Colombian government during the peace negotiations of the early 2010s.

Now, the ELN – Colombia’s strongest remaining guerrilla force – is in a position to demonstrate its strength. The group has grown over the past four years, even establishing a firm foothold in Venezuela.

In 2020, the group imposed a 72-hour national strike across 9 of Colombia’s departments, paralyzing much of Colombia’s rural territory. In 2019, the ELN claimed responsibility for bombing the National Police Academy in Bogotá, killing 22 cadets.

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