Monday, January 15, 2007
The U.S. Faces Eviction from Ecuadorian Air Base
By Sam Logan
wants the US military to leave its base in Manta, Ecuador, and Washington is not overly concerned, though it would mean losing
a strategic drug war position.
The Eloy Alfaro
air base in Manta, Ecuador, is one of five primary air bases in the country. After Washington negotiated a ten-year lease
agreement that would allow the US military to use a portion of the base, US operations there attracted little attention, at
least until Ecuador’s 2006 presidential election campaign, when President-elect Rafael Correa pledged not to renew the
lease in 2009. It was a popular move among many of his constituents.
Command (SouthCom), the branch of the US military that oversees operations in the Western Hemisphere, claims that installations
at Manta play an important role in counter-drug operations. As a Forward Operation Location (FOL), Manta is one of a number
of air bases that replaced US facilities closed in Panama in 1999.
Yet, as a beachhead
for US activities in South America and with 2009 drawing closer, the base will find itself at the center of a new focus. Some
experts believe that Ecuador may test the waters to see just how important the base is to the US by using its impending existence
as a leverage point to gain preferential trade access to US markets.
Once the US
government signed the ten-year lease, it promptly spent over US$70 million to prepare the base for US aircraft and personnel.
A new runway was installed and upgrades were made to base facilities. Today, the base can accommodate up to eight aircraft
— four large, four medium — and is authorized to house a maximum of 475 military personnel, according to Jose
Ruiz, spokesman for US SouthCom.
[the base] is supported by 250 personnel from the US Armed Forces and US Customs and Border Patrol,” Ruiz told ISN Security
Watch. “An additional 65 US citizens and 180 Ecuadorian contractors support the FOL counter-drug operations,”
As the US FOL
at Manta is a counter-drug operation, a number of AWACS surveillance planes stationed there make two flights daily, according
to a 19 December article by the UK magazine The Economist. Ruiz suggested that missions over the Eastern Pacific and the Andean
mountains greatly aided the United States’ overall counter-drug strategy for the region.
1999, the FOL has conducted more than 3,300 counter-drug missions, totaling over 18,000 flight hours and has contributed directly
or indirectly to the seizure of more than 52,000 kg of illegal drugs with a street value exceeding US$2 billion,” Ruiz
out that it was in the best interests of the US and its regional partners to continue monitoring narco-trafficking activities.
When asked about options the US government would have in the event the base was closed in 2009, Ruiz replied that the US government
would “continue pursuing, considering and assessing effective options for counter-drug activities.”
The US FOL
at Manta has attracted more attention among Ecuadorians because it is seen as part and parcel of Plan Colombia, the US-Colombia
policy to combat narco-trafficking and terrorism inside Colombia. Correa’s election suggests that Ecuador wants no part
of Plan Colombia because he campaigned strongly against any Ecuadorian role. And as tensions between the two countries escalated
in 2006, and again this year, a measure of Ecuadorian ill will aimed at Colombia is now being redirected to the US at Manta.
nationwide position not to involve Ecuador in Plan Colombia is the first reason why Ecuadorians do not want the US military
to remain in Manta,” Fredy Rivera, a professor and researcher with the Ecuadorian branch of the Latin American University
for Social Sciences, told ISN Security Watch during a recent telephone interview.
that another reason why Ecuadorians did not want the base to remain was their belief that the base was only used for counter-drug
missions. “The surveillance equipment can be used to watch activity in Colombia, Peru, parts of Venezuela and Bolivia,
and of course Ecuador,” Rivera said, adding, “this is official discourse.”
does not regard the US as a close regional partner. And as the US draws ever closer to Colombia, holding on to what many consider
Washington’s last beachhead in South America, it is possible Ecuador will consider Colombian and US foreign policy as
final reason why Ecuadorians do not want the base at Manta renewed is due to US and Colombian foreign policy,” Rivera
noted. During 2006, relations between Ecuador and Colombian were tense due to fumigation on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border
and the presence of Colombian armed forces on Ecuadorian sovereign territory. On two occasions, the Ecuadorian ambassador
to Colombia was called back to Quito for consultations — diplomatic signaling for a high level of discontent.
agreements of understanding that dictate a free-flowing information exchange between the two countries have not been honored
by Colombia, according to Rivera.
inside Ecuador stand in a line parallel to the negative sentiments Ecuadorians feel for the US, and the most tangible piece
of real estate that symbolizes these negative feelings has, over time, become Manta.
election, Washington has been worried about losing Ecuador to the Venezuelan sphere of influence. Whether or not Correa falls
in step with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, analysts believe he will be reminded of his campaign promise to close the Manta
base, and has already publicly considered using the base as an international airport to link South America with Asia.
It is still
too early to gauge how far the US will go to keep Manta. Nor is it clear if Washington will use economic incentives to pressure
Correa into renewing the lease agreement, but many believe he will see how much leverage he has for negotiation with the US.
a campaign pledge to honor,” John Walsh, Senior Associate for the Andes and Drug Policy with the Washington Office on
Latin America, told ISN Security Watch.
that Correa had adopted a tough stance as the most logical negotiation position at this point. "If the US wants to prevent
the base from being closed, then Correa should ask, 'What are you going to give me?'" he said.
sense for Correa to start with a very hard line. And if he extracts from the US aid or other kinds of concessions, perhaps
something related to trade, then it's part of the bargaining,” Walsh pointed out. “He has a while yet where he
can take a tough stance and see what he can get for it," he said.
may find that the US government holds low regard for the base. "When the base was first conceived and built-out, for SouthCom
and the Pentagon in general, the drug war was a bigger deal than it is now,” Walsh said. “It's no longer the top
war on anyone's agenda.”
Vice President of Policy with the Inter-American Dialogue, agrees.
Manta base serves no larger strategic purpose for the US in Latin America, apart from some support in fighting the Drug War,”
Shifter told ISN Security Watch in a recent email interview.
attempts to use the base as leverage to improve his negotiation position with the US, after all the campaign promises and
shouting, may be met with ambivalence, according to Shifter. Correa's closure of the base could very well come and go as little
more than a minor blip on SouthCom’s radar.
Shifter, “It is easy to imagine possible options for Washington in the region, especially if [other countries] were
prepared to offer highly favorable terms.”
“The concern about the Manta base
is overdrawn and unnecessary.”
This article was originally published at ISN Security Watch (01/12/07). The International Relations and Security
Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and comprehensive products and resources
to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals worldwide.
Sam Logan (www.samuellogan.com) is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized
crime, terrorism, and black markets in Latin America since 1999. As well, Logan is the Latin American correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He has just published his first e-book entitled “The Reality of a Mexican Mega Cartel.”
Reprinted with permission from ISN.