Colombian Army and National Police Search for Illegal Refineries

Capacity Building

The tools used for stealing and refining crude oil are rudimentary and easily obtained in any hardware store. (Photo: Pegasus Task Force, Colombian Army)

The theft of crude from pipelines to illegally process hydrocarbon and convert it into gasoline has become a common crime in the country. It is calculated that 662 barrels of crude per day are lost this way.

According to Brigadier General Alberto Tafur García, the commander of the Pegasus Task Force of the Colombian Army (ENC, per its Spanish acronym) assigned to the department of Nariño, the operation was conducted on July 27th. It required exhaustive intelligence work that led to the recovery of 40,000 gallons of oil that had been stolen from the Trans-Andean Pipeline, and 1,320 gallons of refined gasoline that had been processed.

“The theft of crude has been ongoing for many years now. Some of the country’s oldest pipelines run over land and are susceptible to attacks from organized armed groups [GAO, per its Spanish acronym],” Brig. Gen. Tafur said. “They drill through the tube [in the pipeline] and install 1.5-inch valves connected to 1,000-meter-long hoses that take the stolen fuel where they want. It’s not specialized work, but it causes a lot of harm.”

Through this criminal activity, GAO seek to commercialize the fuel or use it as supply in the cocaine-production process. It is a type of gasoline that is not used in vehicles due to its low-grade, although it is also sold for that purpose in some southern parts of the country.

From each 42-gallon barrel of crude that is illegally extracted, only 20 percent is used, since the refining process is rudimentary and inefficient. The rest is dumped directly into the aquifer and croplands. The result has a detrimental environmental impact in the region.

The actions taken by ENC in 2017 have exceeded last year’s results, with 13 illegal valves found near dwellings in various municipalities and the destruction of 77 illegal refineries, 174 distillation towers, 84 pools for storing crude, and five explosive devices that had been installed to block ENC’s advance. Also seized were 114,000 gallons of distilled gasoline and 4,718 gallons of diesel fuel, and 127,000 gallons of crude were recovered.

Prevention, the best option

Police Colonel Luis Quintero is the commander of the Special Hydrocarbon Operations Group in Colombia. In coordination with ENC, the group is responsible for stopping the theft and the illegal refinery.

“Our work consists of preventing the commandeering of the tube by GAO. That’s why we patrol a large length of the pipeline day and night and why we do pipeline surveillance operations meter by meter,” Col. Quintero said. “We also conduct intensive intelligence work to determine the zones where this crime is more likely to occur. These operations, in coordination with the Colombian Army, led us to find this refinery in Nariño, one of the largest that we’ve found this year.”

The crime of illegally extracting crude is done by perforating the pipeline to install valves connected to hoses that carry the fuel several kilometers away to illegal refineries. There, it is stored in special pools for treating the crude in distillation towers and converting it into gasoline.

“Once the valve is installed, the criminals try to hide the hose underground so that we don’t get to the refineries, which can be located 500 to 3,000 meters away,” Col. Quintero said. “So far this year, we’ve seized 25,000 meters of hose that led to their respective refineries.”

“One reason why it’s so hard to find the valves is that they are very close by or even inside homes,” Brig. Gen. Tafur added. “The age of the Trans-Andean Oil Pipeline has given folks enough time to settle in areas that are close to the tube.”

Vulnerable pipelines

The Trans-Andean Oil Pipeline is one of the oldest in the country. It carries heavy crude for 305 kilometers from Orito, in Putumayo, to the sea terminal in the municipality of Tumaco, in Nariño. The pipeline crosses mountains that are more than 3,000 meters above sea level. The Caño Limón-Coveñas Pipeline, however, is 780 kilometers long, running from the department of Arauca to the department of Sucre, along Colombia’s Caribbean coastline.

“It’s hard to detect an illegal refinery not only because of the great length of the pipeline or the jungle and altitude conditions but because the Trans-Andean and Caño Limón-Coveñas pipelines carry heavy crude,” Col. Quintero said. “It’s impossible to determine a change in pressure in the flow of the tube when an illegal valve is installed, as occurs with the transportation of light fuels such as naphtha, gasoline, or natural gas.”

On the other hand, the theft of crude and its refinement are done simply and in an artisanal way. The tube is perforated with a household drill to install a stopcock commonly used for water. The distillation towers are built with mesh and 55-gallon containers. With a bit of heat, the process of distilling crude to turn it into gasoline begins.

“The challenge to overcoming this persistent crime lays in reinforcing our joint intelligence work for removing some of the homes that have been built illegally over the pipeline,” Brig. Gen. Tafur concluded. “At times, it may be the case that no one lives in the dwelling but that is where the valve is located.”

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