In an action condemned by human rights groups and civil society in general as a violation of international humanitarian law, last October 18 the ELN guerrillas set off an explosion of an oil pipeline. Crude oil spilled on the high part of a hill in the village of Machuca, municipality of Segovia, Antioquia, causing a fire that came down the hillside to a river, burning dozens of riverside dwellings, and killing 70 civilians in the blaze.
The commander of the ELN, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista ("Gabino") acknowledged to the Colombian television news program En Vivo that "it was a serious error on the part of those who carried out the action, insofar as they erred in gauging the consequences that would be caused by the spill of the crude oil.... They didn't properly assess the damage that would be occasioned the population down below." He added that the ELN hadn't intended to harm Machuca, as they were under guerrilla control, and that several of the victims had relatives in the guerrilla ranks: "The country must be told that the people of Machuca are our family. They know it was a mistake, and that we are investigating the persons responsible." In early November, paramilitary incursions into the rural areas of Vegachí and Remedios, in retaliation for the Machuca tragedy, left 15 dead and four disappeared; it was alleged that they were led by a former member of the ELN.
The ELN initially denied responsibility, instead blaming the fire on the Army; the accusation was immediately rejected by Gen. Fernando Tapias, Commander of the Armed Forces, who called the ELN "cynical." Considering the peace overtures between the Pastrana administration and the ELN, and the potentially dire humanitarian consequences of continued bombing of the oil pipelines, it remains to be seen whether the ELN will respond to long-standing calls to abandon the practice, which has been a regular ELN tactic since the mid-1980s.
Sources: AFP and El Tiempo.