Monitoring the U.S. Military Presence in Latin America

The physical presence of U.S. military personnel throughout the hemisphere has changed substantially during the past ten years. Back in 1997, large military bases were the rule, most of them in the former Panama Canal Zone. The Southern Command (SouthCom)—which is the name of the U.S. Defense Department’s command center for Latin America—left its headquarters in Panama that year, relocating to Miami.

March 13, 2008

The physical presence of U.S. military personnel throughout the hemisphere has changed substantially during the past ten years. Back in 1997, large military bases were the rule, most of them in the former Panama Canal Zone. The Southern Command (SouthCom)—which is the name of the U.S. Defense Department’s command center for Latin America—left its headquarters in Panama that year, relocating to Miami. A series of base closures followed, as the U.S. military pulled out of Panama in compliance with a 1977 treaty.

In 1999, 96 years of U.S. military bases in Panama came to an end—but not until both sides abandoned a last-ditch effort to establish a “Multinational Counterdrug Center” on the facilities of Howard Air Force Base. Today, eight years after the Panama pull out, what does the U.S. military presence in Latin America look like?

The Southern Command’s various components relocated to U.S. soil, some of them by way of Puerto Rico. The command’s headquarters remains in Miami. U.S. Army South moved to Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, and then to Fort Sam Houston, Texas. U.S. Naval Forces South moved first to the Roosevelt Roads facility in Puerto Rico; this facility closed down after resident protests forced an end to live-fire bombing practice on the nearby island of Vieques. SouthCom’s naval component is now headquartered at the Mayport Naval Station in Florida. U.S. Marine Corps Forces South moved to Southern Command headquarters in Miami. Special Operations Command South went to Roosevelt Roads and then to the Homestead Air Reserve base in Florida. Southern Command Air Forces (the 12th Air Force) now operates from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Key West, Florida, hosts a counter-drug intelligence-gathering operation, Joint Interagency Task Force South.

Two other bases that existed in 1997 continue to host a significant U.S. presence. Joint Task Force Bravo, a several hundred-strong force of rotational U.S. military units, has been stationed at the Enrique Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras since 1983. The unit’s mission has changed little over the past decade: it continues to coordinate exercises, “humanitarian and civic assistance” construction and medical projects, disaster relief missions, and support for counterdrug operations in the region.

The other base, the Guantánamo Naval Station in Cuba, saw its mission change radically and controversially after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Ten years ago, Guantánamo was a sleepy former coaling station for U.S. naval vessels, where a small contingent of personnel maintained a presence on a patch of land that had been “leased” to the United States since 1903. Today, the base is a detention and interrogation facility for those whom the Bush administration has deemed “enemy combatants” in the “global war on terror.” Several hundred suspected terrorists have been detained on the site, some of them for nearly five years. Guantánamo has become a focus of worldwide controversy, fed by allegations of abusive treatment and questions about the detainees’ legal status. The Bush administration insists that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the detainees, and has acknowledged the possibility that some could spend their lives in custody without trial.

In February 2006, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended that the prison camp be shuttered “as soon as is possible.” In Latin America, the Guantánamo detainee controversy has badly sapped the credibility of U.S. human rights promotion efforts, as critics—both from the political right and left—scoff at annual State Department human rights reports and other diplomatic critiques of abusive behavior in the region.

Cooperative Security Locations

Beyond these two facilities, the U.S. military’s post-Panama approach to basing in the hemisphere has become more flexible. In 1999 and 2000, the U.S. government sought to replace the counternarcotics flight capacity that it lost when Howard Air Force Base ceased operations in Panama. It came up with the figure of “Forward Operating Locations,” later renamed “Cooperative Security Locations,” or CSLs.

Ten-year agreements allowed the establishment of three facilities where small numbers of military, Drug Enforcement Agency, Coast Guard and Customs personnel carry out counter-drug missions. The three CSLs are at Manta, Ecuador (the Eloy Alfaro International Airport); Aruba (Reina Beatrix International Airport) and nearby Curaçao (Hato International Airport) in the Netherlands Antilles; and at the Comalapa International Airport in El Salvador. The U.S. agencies’ personnel, plus private contractors, total about 450 at Manta and 250 at Curaçao, and a smaller number at the other sites. Most are aircraft maintenance, logistical, communications and intelligence specialists.

The 10-year agreements governing these facilities limit their use to counter-drug missions, mainly those of aircraft seeking to detect and monitor illegal drug-smuggling in the huge “transit zone” between the Andes and the United States’ southern border.

A maritime training of the U.S. Naval Forces in support of SouthCom’s regional objectives for enhanced maritime security.

The agreements governing all three sites will be up for renewal within the next four years. The CSL whose future is most in jeopardy is Manta, Ecuador, which expires in 2009. In November 2006 Ecuadorans elected presidential candidate Rafael Correa, a critic of U.S. counter-drug policy who had promised during the campaign that he would close Manta. The day after his election, he said, “We are respectful of international treaties, but in 2009, when the Manta agreement expires, we will not renew that accord.”1

Despite this uncertainty, it appears that CSLs, and even less formal arrangements, are the future for the U.S. military presence in much of the hemisphere. While the days of formal military bases appear to be over, “DOD’s proposal envisions a diverse array of smaller cooperative locations for contingency access” throughout the region, according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report.2

Forward Operating Sites

In addition to the three CSLs, the Southern Command has a series of even looser arrangements, in which “smaller numbers of U.S. personnel on anti-drug missions have access to several foreign air bases for refueling, repairs or shorter missions.”3 These bases where U.S. personnel have access to facilities—known as “forward operating sites” or, more colloquially, “lily pads”—are a model being adopted even more vigorously in Africa and central Asia than in Latin America. The facilities usually have very few U.S. personnel or contractors on site, and in some cases are little more than refueling stops.

As security analyst Michael Klare describes the new “forward operating site” model:

In discussing these new facilities, the Defense Department has gone out of its way to avoid using the term “military base.” A base, in the Pentagon’s lexicon, is a major facility with permanent barracks, armories, recreation facilities, housing for dependents and so on. Such installations typically have been in place for many years and are sanctioned by a formal security partnership with the host country involved. The new types of facilities, on the other hand, will contain no amenities, house no dependents and not be tied to a formal security arrangement. This distinction is necessary, the Pentagon explains, to avoid giving the impression that the United States is seeking a permanent, coloniallike presence in the countries it views as possible hosts for such installations.4

Though this model is being pioneered more vigorously elsewhere in the world, the U.S. military does appear to have “lilypad” arrangements at several sites in South America—particularly Colombia, where military personnel are supporting and advising Colombian military counterparts at several bases with airstrips (Tolemaida, Larandia, Tres Esquinas, and others); and Peru, where U.S. personnel on counter-drug missions have a semi-permanent presence at bases and radar sites in Pucallpa, Iquitos, and Palmapampa, among others. Panama’s press has reported that SouthCom occasionally runs flights in and out of Tocumen Airport in Panama City.5

This less formal basing model may continue to expand. A 2006 Rand Corporation study commissioned by the U.S. Air Force warns, “Potential future operations in South America may be greatly constrained unless additional infrastructure in the region is obtained,” and suggests the establishment of arrangements to use facilities in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico; Tocumen, Panama; and Cotopaxi, Ecuador. 6

Where is this phenomenon headed now? For the past few years, the rush to closer military-to-military engagement has slowed somewhat. With the United States still embroiled in difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is likely to continue for the short term.

In the medium term, however, Latin America and the Caribbean may come back into U.S. view. If the “War on Terror” fails to spur a push to increase military assistance to the region—and it still might—those who advocate military responses to regional challenges will likely find another rationale. There is no shortage of candidates. Editorial pages throughout the United States warn of an “anti-American leftist wave” of leaders being elected throughout the region. Other elected presidents in the region seek to enlist their own militaries to fight crime—whether common or organized crime—and want the United States to help. Military and think-tank strategists warn of the dangers posed by the hemisphere’s vast “ungoverned spaces.” Drug War proponents will continue their push for punitive source-zone eradication strategies.

In response, much of the U.S. defense and foreign-policy establishment is too eager to endorse policies that increase the internal roles of Latin America’s militaries. We may find ourselves monitoring new aid initiatives focused on internal security, the founding of new “forward operating sites,” the development of closer security partnerships with hard-line governments, new “get-tough” counter-drug policies, and new, unaccountable programs within the U.S. defense budget.

When in Doubt, Rename

The U.S. military’s lexicon has changed considerably over the last ten years, often reflecting a desire to make them more palatable to interested stakeholders rather than make substantive changes. Here are a few examples:

Counter-drug to Counter-terror and Narcotrafficker (or “Narco-Guerrilla”) to Narcoterrorist: Same problem, same people—but with a new spin to fit new U.S. priorities.

School of the Americas (SOA) to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC): The SOA’s baggage, after training too many Latin American human-rights abusers, could not be unloaded. WHINSEC offers many of the same classes at the same location, although with a strengthened oversight mechanism. The name change hasn’t stopped the annual protests at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, where the school is located.

Forward Operating Location (FOL) to Cooperative Security Location (CSL): These are exactly the same thing—foreign air fields that the U.S. government uses for counter-drug observation flights. FOL sounded too much like something that might actually execute a forward operation. CSL sounds warmer and friendlier.

Engagement to Security Cooperation: A decade ago, “engagement” with Latin American militaries was the name of the game. Engagement was an end in itself. The concept and term became unpopular and overnight “security cooperation” was born.

Advisors to Instructors: U.S. personnel aiding the Salvadoran armed forces during the 1980s were called “advisors,” and they were often in the vicinity when combat took place. Something similar happens today in Colombia, but U.S. officials will usually correct you if you use that term to describe the several hundred U.S. military and contract personnel there today. For obvious reasons, they prefer “instructors,” and occasionally “support personnel” or “logistics personnel.”

Civic Action to Humanitarian Civic Assistance: The term describes U.S. military deployments to build civilian infrastructure (roads, schools, wells) or to provide veterinary or medical care in impoverished zones, a frequent practice throughout the region. The first term, which evokes these deployments’ origin as a counter-insurgency strategy, was in the process of being scrapped in favor of the second during the late 1990s, when our monitoring project began.

This is an excerpt from a more extensive report by Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and Joy Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America The full report, “Below the Radar: U.S. Military Programs with Latin America, 1997-2006” is available for download [PDF 2.8 MB].

U.S. Military Bases in Latin America

An interactive map of U.S. military installations in Latin America from TeleSUR (in Spanish):
1. “El Comando Sur tiende puentes para no perder la Base de Manta,” El Comercio (Quito, Ecuador: November 27, 2006)

2. “Jon D. Klaus, U.S. Military Overseas Basing: Background and Oversight Issues for Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, November 17, 2004)

3. United States, Report of Commission on Overseas Military Facility Structure of the United States (Washington: August 15, 2005)

4. Michael T. Klare, “Outposts of Empire,” The Nation (New York: April 25, 2005)

5. Betty Brannan Jaén and Rafael Pérez, “EU insiste en operaciones desde Panamá,” La Prensa (Panama, April 18, 2001)

6. Mahyar A. Amouzegar, Ronald G. McGarvey, Robert S. Tripp, Louis Luangkesorn, Thomas Lang, Charles Robert Roll, Jr., Evaluation of Options for Overseas Combat Support Basing (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 2006)


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