U.S. Military Looks to Colombia to Replace Base in Ecuador

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.

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.

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.

U.S. troops at the Manta air base. (By Cambio Archives)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

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.

Maps of Manta and Palanquero (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

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

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.