martes, 14 de febrero de 2012

Transportation Safety in the Guajira

In 1981, the Colombia Guajira desert was a lawless territory where bandits, drug runners, arms traffickers, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) (Revolutionary Armed Forces), and descendents from the English and Spanish pirates of the Caribbean ruled east of the Magdalena River to the Venezuelan border. INTERCOR understood these security risks and made the first priority to secure the forty thousand-hectare mining concession with an eight-foot chain-link fence and with the Colombian army troops camped inside the fence. The first INTERCOR employees, a group of seventeen superintendents, included me. The area outside the perimeter fence was off limits to all including the army troops.

We flew in on two Twin Otter planes landing on the newly constructed gravel air strip. I gazed out of the Twin Otter window and saw no mine, only Guajira desert brush. In the distance, a CAT D10 tractor was clearing brush. The dust was so thick that at times the D10 tractor was not visible. And the heat! It was so hot that my clothes were quickly soaked in sweat, even standing in the shade. The rustic campsite had a loud air conditioner unit stuck in the window of my bedroom. It rumbled constantly but never got the temperature much below ninety degrees. Of course, that was much cooler than one hundred and forty degrees in the hot Guajira sun.

Gordon Peters, INTERCOR mine operations manager, greeted us at the camp cafeteria. “Mike, your objective is to establish a small warehouse at the mine site, call it a base of operations for your area of material control.” This was my first assignment at the mine. (Gordon passed away on August 16, 2011, in Jupiter, Florida.  Gordon was remembered in his retirement years as a regional judge for an orchid grower’s society. Gordon was a great leader for the Cerrejon Coal Mining Project during the Early Start phase.)

That seemed a simple task at the time, but as soon as we started looking for a contractor, we discovered that most did not want to take the risk of traveling to the Guajira, a territory controlled by bandits, drug runners and the FARC. At last we found a contractor willing to do the job; clear and level an area of 100 yards by two hundred yards, and erect a chain-link fence around the area. The price was $25,000, equivalent in today’s dollars of about $100,000. This tidy sum for less than one week’s worth of work. It was the first operations warehouse at Cerrejon, and over the next four years, we moved from an old warehouse to a new bigger warehouse eight times.

Trucks carrying supplies and spare parts began to travel regularly from Barranquilla to the mine warehouse. Danger on the lawless Guajira roads lurked everywhere. Trucks traveled in caravans. Security men with 12-gauge pump Remington shotguns accompanied every driver. The caravan started moving from Barranquilla at 8:00 a.m., and by 4:00 p.m., the caravan had to be off the road for the night. There was no travel at night or travel without a security guard. The safety rules for transportation in the Guajira were “One shot over their head, the second shot at them!”

Transportation in the Guajira was difficult for suppliers. A local community vendor tried to make a delivery direct to the mine warehouse. He made it to the mine security gate with his small delivery truck, but he had a flat tire and no spare. He parked his truck on the side of the road near the security gate and returned to his town, about 10 miles away, to find a spare tire. When he returned that afternoon with a spare tire, he was shocked to discover that his truck was sitting on the ground, tireless and without rims. The mine security guards a few yards away had seen nothing. Furious, he returned to his town a second time to get four tires and rims. The next morning when he returned, the truck was stripped; the engine and cargo were gone. A week later, when I drove past the mine security gate, I noticed the frame of the truck lying in the ditch, abandoned beside the road. All that had any value had been stolen, and the truck frame was a reminder of theft in the Guajira.

Transportation security was extremely important to the Cerrejon mine. Theft on the highway was carried out by Guajira bandits who were even more dangerous than the revolutionary FARC militiamen. Moving materials, equipment, and consumables to the mine site and traveling through FARC and bandit territory was dangerous business!
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