An article by the Colombian weekly magazine Cambio suggests the U.S. military base in Manta, Ecuador, will be moved to a new location in Colombia after the U.S. military’s contract with Ecuador expires in 2009. The likely new host for the U.S. base is Colombia’s Palanquero air force base in Puerto Salgar, 120 miles north of Bogotá.
Cambio cites an April 22 meeting between U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos in which the U.S. diplomat delivered some unexpected news. Brownfield told the minister the State Department had decided the Palanquero base was being “recertified.” Cambio mentions “military and diplomatic circles” interpreted the decision as the first step toward establishing the new U.S. base in Palanquero.
U.S. troops at the Manta air base. (By Cambio Archives)
The base had been “decertified”—barring it from receiving direct U.S. military assistance—since January 2003, when a Colombian court implicated planes from Palanquero in the 1998 bombing of a town in eastern Colombia in which 18 innocent civilians were killed. (That same year, Palanquero received $352,000 in unspecified U.S. military aid.) The Colombian military first blamed the deaths on a guerrilla car bomb, but subsequent investigations found a U.S.-made rocket—only used by the Air Force—caused the destruction.
Brownfield said the State Department’s recent recertification was in response to supposed gains by the Colombian Armed Forces in respect for human rights and in the planning and execution of Air Force operations. Palanquero is equipped with advanced radar equipment installed by a U.S. team in the 1990s that played an instrumental role in the March bombing of a guerrilla camp in Ecuador that killed Raúl Reyes, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Latin American countries rallied around Ecuador and denounced the bombing and subsequent incursion by Colombian Special Forces. The United States was alone in lending its full support to the Colombian government's controversial decision. And now that the U.S. contract for the Manta base is set to expire, the U.S. military would naturally consider relocating the base on the soil of its most steadfast ally in the region: Colombia.
Sources from both the Colombian and U.S. governments refuse to publicly confirm or deny whether Palanquero will be the new site of the U.S. base—or even if the new base will in fact be in Colombia. “We have to look at criteria like geography, altitude, concentration of threat, etc.” Brownfield said in an interview last month when asked about the base relocation. “Without a doubt, there are possibilities in Colombia. Our government could propose and the host would decide if this type of collaboration is permitted.” Colombian President Álvaro Uribe similarly left the door open to the possibility: “We will continue to do everything possible to strengthen the help of the United States in the effort to defeat narcotrafficking. We have not talked about a military base, we’ve talked the way we always do . . . about ways to strengthen cooperation.”
Manta: A South American Foothold
In U.S. military jargon, Manta is a “Forward Operating Location,” later renamed a “Cooperative Security Location” (CSL) in a branding effort presumably aimed at sounding less invasive and permanent. Manta was first leased to the military by the administration of Ecuadoran President Jamal Mahuad in 1999. In 2001 alone, the U.S. military used $61.3 million from the multibillion-dollar military aid package known as Plan Colombia to revamp Manta, which remains the only full-blown U.S. CSL on the South American mainland.
Click on map to enlarge. (By El Tiempo)
The improvements built by a local subsidiary of the ABB Susa corporation, a New Jersey military contractor, allowed the creation of a formidable war machine capable of handling some of the largest aircrafts in the U.S. arsenal. Manta currently counts on a rotating set of about 450 personnel, including agents from the military, Drug Enforcement Agency, Coast Guard and Customs Enforcement.
The 10-year agreements that regulate the lease of bases like Manta supposedly limit their use to counter-drug missions, but several press investigations and accusations by the Ecuadoran government show the base is also used for intelligence gathering and logistical support to aid the Colombian government’s counter-insurgency against the FARC.
Manta has also been the subject of several scandals, including one in August 2005 when local press revealed a former U.S. operative from Manta was recruiting Ecuadoran and Colombian nationals to join mercenary operations in Iraq. The company leading the recruiting was EPI Security & Investigators, owned by Jeffrey Shippy, a former Manta employee of Dyncorp, the military contractor managing the spraying of coca fields in neighboring Colombia.
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has long warned he plans to not renew the lease on Manta. He famously declared he would allow the U.S. military to keep Manta under the “simple” condition that Ecuador be allowed to build a similar base in Miami. Correa’s allies are even planning to write into the new Constitution a prohibition on foreign military bases. With the loss of Manta, the U.S. military not only loses a strategic piece of real estate, but also a necessary foothold for surveillance missions conducted by AWAC E3 and P-3 Orion spy aircraft.
Enter Stage Right: Palanquero
U.S. military spokespeople have also floated the idea of Peru as a potential home for the new base, which would join ranks with similar “Cooperative Security Locations” in El Salvador and in the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao—and another on Cuban soil if Guantánamo were included. A joint-report by a series of Latin America watchdog organizations based in Washington from 2007 explains: “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.”
With the loss of these bases, including the Howard Air Force Base in Panama, the Pentagon came up with the idea of “Forward Operating Locations” or “Cooperative Security Locations” as a decentralized infrastructure that would help the military keep tabs on the region and replace the lost capacity for surveillance on drug trafficking, which had been deemed the latest “national security threat.”
U.S. Navy sailors in joint exercise with Peruvian Navy. (By US Navy)
The loss of the Manta air base comes at a time when the Pentagon is beginning to reassert its military presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The U.S. Navy, for instance, announced in April the re-establishment of its Fourth Fleet. The Fourth Fleet was created in 1943 during World War II, but was scrapped seven years later after the end of the war. Announcing its resurrection, the Navy vaguely stated the fleet was charged with conducting “varying missions including a range of contingency operations, counter narco-terrorism, and theater security cooperation activities.”
The journalists at Cambio visited Palanquero and discovered that, in the eyes of U.S. military planners, it is ideally equipped like no other installation in Latin America. A much larger facility than Manta, Palanquero has enough housing for more than 2,000 people in a huge complex that includes restaurants, a supermarket, a theater, a hospital, and even a casino. And its aviation capacities are state-of-the-art for the region: two huge hangars able to accommodate between 50 and 60 planes and a runway that is 600 meters longer than Manta’s. “Up to three planes can take off at a time,” a military officer proudly told reporters.
The potential U.S. base is strategically located in the center of the country. The Colombian Air Force’s Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets can currently reach all of the country’s borders in 10 minutes. And since Palanquero lies on the banks of the Magdalena River it is even capable of receiving amphibious aircraft, Cambio reports.
Former Colombian Defense Minister Rafael Pardo Rueda (1991–94) has already stated his opposition to the possibility of a new base. “A decision of this caliber would have serious repercussions for our foreign relations,” said Pardo, Colombia’s first civilian defense minister. “The possible base would reinforce the opinion that the decisions of Colombia are subordinated to the North. . . . Cooperation is better under sovereign conditions, rather than having a base acting with autonomy within our borders.”
If the U.S. military is indeed planning on moving into Palanquero, Colombian law would require approval of the Senate, which is currently dominated by Uribe’s allies. Nonetheless, Cambio established that current security cooperation agreements between the United States and Colombia already contain the sufficient loopholes to make the move legally painless.
Teo Ballvé is a freelance journalist based in Colombia.