BP’s secret soldiers

BP is using a secretive security firm to guard its oil rigs and staff in a `red zone’, report Michael Sean Gillard and Melissa Jones in Casanare, Colombia

EVER since the giant British Petroleum company (BP) arrived in the Andean foothills of eastern Colombia eight years ago, its security operation there has been shrouded in secrecy.

Last year, international concern over BP’s financial relationship with the Colombian military, one of the world’s worst human rights violators, forced it to open up. But today there is one part of BP’s complex security network that it is not keen to discuss. It concerns a yearly $2-million contract with Defence Systems Limited (DSL), Britain’s foremost but publicity-shy security company with offices next door to Buckingham Palace.

DSL was formed in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher was selling Britain’s defence industry to Cold War warriors around the world. At the time DSL represented an unusual alliance between influential figures in the financial district of London, the British army’s crack assault group, the Special Air Services (SAS), and British intelligence. Today it is still widely regarded as the British government’s preferred security company for all those difficult jobs in far off, lawless places.

DSL sells itself on the SAS credentials of its directors and staff, who boast of an involvement in “all the major United Kingdom and United States counter-terrorist incidents since the early Seventies”. This gung-ho reputation begins with DSL founder and chair, Alastair Morrison, an SAS hero and former second-in-command of the elite regiment.

Morrison (54) made his name leading the famous SAS rescue of a hijacked Lufthansa plane at Mogadishu Airport in 1977. In civvy street he worked hard to build up the DSL Group of 20 companies. Along the way Morrison made valuable contacts with those who operated between the British Parliament, the Tory party and the defence industry, like disgraced former defence procurement minister, Jonathan Aitken.

DSL did well out of the Cold War and today is prospering in the new world order of emerging markets like Colombia and Russia. Enough so to attract a $26-million takeover recently by an American security concern. The prestigious company specialises in hostage rescue, kidnap and ransom, intelligence operations and military training in 26 countries worldwide. The United Nations is also a client.

However, its most important market is the protection of oil and mineral companies. DSL is keen to stress in rare public statements that it has no involvement in the mercenary operations of “lesser” security companies.

BP contracted DSL in 1992 to run their security operation in Colombia. The BP contract is handled by a DSL subsidiary, Defence Systems Colombia (DSC), which is discreetly based in a fortified backstreet office in uptown Bogota.

BP employs DSC to co-ordinate the defence of its oil rigs and staff with the Colombian army and police. The oil field is situated in a “red zone” where one of Colombia’s strongest guerrilla forces, the Castroite National Liberation Army (ELN), has a historic presence.

BP and its partners pay millions of dollars to the Colombian army to protect it from ELN’s frequent attacks. But the army brings to Casanare a US-designed counter- insurgency strategy of dirty war, known locally as “quitarle agua al pez” or draining the fish tank. Instead of fighting the guerrillas, the army and pro-government paramilitary death squads target people they consider sympathisers.

While BP is not responsible for these tactics, which have led to escalating violence, the army is, nevertheless, currently under investigation for human rights abuses and alleged involvement in the death of six peasant leaders who protested about the oil giant. Thankfully for the Colombian government and its generals, the drug war obscures this sinister conflict, and portrays itself as the victim of violence rather than its chief perpetrator.

Sir David Simon’s final act as chair of BP was an impassioned defence of his company’s record in Colombia following last year’s international criticism. At last April’s annual general meeting in London he told shareholders that only the “highest standards of corporate governance, openness and accountability” would do in Colombia.

A year-long investigation by a British television programme, World In Action, which has evidence from former DSC security advisers -including two ex-SAS members from the special projects team who in 1980 famously stormed the Iranian embassy in London – has revealed the activities of a covert security team training Colombian police with BP approval.

On April 30 last year, BP signed a contract with the Colombian National Police, Ponal, to create and dispatch a unit of policemen to Casanare to protect the rigs. The contract is worth an estimated $5 -million a year. The following month a guerrilla attack on a BP oil rig, Dele B, severely exposed police shortcomings.

By summer 1996 BP had tasked a team of ex- SAS soldiers to train the Colombian police secretly. The British trainers wear Colombian police uniforms during the training, which takes place on the rig sites. This involves counter-guerrilla tactics, such as lethal-weapons handling, sniper fire and close-quarter combat.

“Rod”, an ex-DSC insider, said: “The police are now being trained in military subjects. They are getting more involved with patrolling activities that are the normal requirements of an infantry unit, which is definitely being seen by the population as another military force in the area. The people are scared to death; you can see it on their faces.”

BP’s secret soldiers are kept apart from the other DSC security advisers in the oil field. “They are operating in Colombia without a contract. They can leave at any date, any time, they have separate accounts, monies deposited in England and in Colombia,” explained Rod.

DSL members are no strangers to counter- insurgency training, which they have provided in the past to security forces in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Mozambique. In Colombia, BP’s secret training team is allegedly using the oil company’s private airport terminal and plane to transport personal weapons to and from the oil field.

Rod saw a named DSC trainer carry personal weapons through BP’s private terminal at Yopal, the Casanare capital.

The trainer arrived on BP’s private plane, which also carries executives to and from Bogota. “I saw civilian clothed personnel who were Colombians and an ex-SAS operative carrying the black boxes, checking right through Yopal Airport. They just put their weapons inside the box, their ammunition in another box and went right through, not signing any forms. It could have been anything, it could have been 15 or 20 mini Uzis in a box, it didn’t matter.”

Such an operation is not untypical, according to two former DSL security advisers not involved with the Colombian operation. They said DSL has a similar arrangement in Angola and, furthermore, the training they provided to the Angolan police was done in secret but with the client’s knowledge.

Security for BP’s private terminals is provided by a Bogota-based Anglo-Colombian security consortium, Laurel and Honor. These companies are run by former British intelligence officer Bill Nixon, who is well known to the ex-SAS men from past operations in Northern Ireland. Honor also provided security advice for the layout of BP’s oil rigs in Casanare.

Policemen stationed on the rigs have confirmed they receive DSC training and named their British trainers. One policeman defending BP’s Pauto Sur oil rig said they are trained for three months at the Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada police academy in Bogota by DSC and police special forces officers from Copes. They then receive top-up training by DSC on the rig sites every three months.

According to two policemen on the oil rig Florena N, BP pays each man $245 a month on top of their police salary. BP denies this and claims the 540 policemen on its rigs are paid directly by Ponal from the oil company’s $5-million annual contract. The training mission is authorised by BP, according to the sources, but neither the oil company nor DSC provides arms.

“I have personally spoken to two BP men on the rigs and the head of BP Security in Bogota about the secret training,” said “Simon”, who took part in the Iranian embassy operation.

On January 21 this year BP Security met DSC manager, Will Daniell, in Bogota to review current security arrangements. A document about the meeting says they talked of a “tactical defence plan”, which included a proposal to train a “quick reaction force” of extra policemen in counter-guerrilla tactics to supplement army protection around the oil rigs.

BP has entered into on-going talks with British human rights and development organisations but during several in-depth discussions this year with Amnesty International, it never once mentioned its secret training of the Colombian police. Amnesty’s Colombia researcher, Susan Lee, says she is “disappointed and concerned. They are employing practices that are extremely dangerous and risky and certainly open to abuse, given the lack of accountability and controls on the Colombian armed forces.” Her concern stems from the well-documented role of the police in human rights abuses.

Last year the Colombian ombudsman received 169 reports of police involvement in murder, disappearances and threats.

BP admits it has made mistakes in Colombia but denies any involvement in human rights abuses. BP now admits that DSC trainers wear police uniforms on the rig sites but denies it is providing lethal military training to the police.

DSL chair, Alastair Morrison, declined to be interviewed.

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