Ecuador Opposes Outpost In American War On Drugs

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
May 12, 2008
Pg. 8
By Simon Romero
MANTA, Ecuador — The scene at the Manta Ray Cafe, a mess hall here at the most prominent American military outpost in South America, suggests all is normal.
A television tuned to Fox Sports beams in a golf tournament. Ecuadorean contractors serve sloppy Joes near refrigerators bulging with Dr Pepper and Gatorade. Air Force personnel in jumpsuits preparing to board an Awacs surveillance plane leaf through dog-eared paperbacks.
But by next year, if President Rafael Correa gets his way, this base will be gone, and, with it, one of the most festering sources of controversy in Washington’s long war on drugs.
“It’s not panic mode yet,” said Steven Tate, 42, a Clearwater, Fla., contractor who moved here two years ago after retiring from the Air Force to help run the base fire station. “I’m hoping a miracle will happen that will allow us to stay.”
To the Bush administration, the American air station here is a critical component in the war on drugs in the Andes. The 180 service members based here conduct about 100 flights a month over the Pacific looking for drug boats from Colombia, the source of about 90 percent of the cocaine used in the United States.
Last year, those flights led to about 200 cocaine seizures, the Air Force said.
But to Ecuadoreans, Manta is a flash point in a regional debate over the limits of American power in Latin America.
In 1999, American officials negotiated a 10-year agreement with President Jamil Mahuad to set up the elaborate airborne radar detection project at Manta, a port of 250,000. The deal did not require the United States to pay rent to Ecuador. Nor did it allow Americans stationed here to be judged in Ecuadorean courts for crimes committed in Ecuador. Nor was it submitted to the Ecuadorean Congress for approval.
Mr. Mahuad was toppled in a military coup a few weeks later.
To Mr. Correa, 45, who opposes renewing the agreement allowing the American base at Manta, the base compromises Ecuador’s sovereignty. Many Ecuadoreans fear it could end up dragging their nation further into Colombia’s long civil war, a fear that was heightened in March, when Colombian forces raided a rebel camp in Ecuadorean territory. Particularly after the Bush administration explicitly sided with Colombia in the diplomatic crisis that erupted after the raid, critics of the United States here see little reason to keep the base.
But to Mr. Correa, the debate is personal as well as political. When he was a child in Guayaquil, his father was imprisoned in the United States for several years on smuggling charges.
He has no intent of ensnaring Ecuadoreans further in the American war on drugs. He has proposed pardoning couriers with long prison sentences for smuggling small amounts of cocaine. He is also one of the most vocal proponents of creating a Latin American defense council that excludes the United States.
In a shake-up of the armed forces in April, Mr. Correa picked Javier Ponce, a poet who advocates less military cooperation with United States, as defense minister. “Should Ecuador have a base in Miami? Or New Jersey?” Mr. Ponce, 59, said. “The decision of the government is not to renew this accord.”
For now, operations here continue as they have for years. When asked what his mission consists of, Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, the ranking American officer in Ecuador, points to the blue waters of the Pacific.
The Awacs sitting on the tarmac at Manta are useless over Colombian soil; the jungle canopy effectively renders them blind for spotting small aircraft, Colonel Leonard explained.
But over the ocean, sometimes the Awacs’ radar happens upon speedboats, some of which transport Colombian cocaine to points north. If this seems like using a $300 million plane to track down far more primitive and cheaper vessels, the personnel here are the first to acknowledge that it is.
“It is a big game of cat and mouse,” the colonel said. “We look for dots on a radar screen. Those dots are smuggling drugs.”
None of the planes here are armed; their mission is detection.
The military says it spends $15 million a year for its operations here, although that figure excludes major expenses like fuel.
Finding another location would have been easier a decade ago, when American standing in the region was higher and allies were easier to find. For now, American officials are resigned to transferring Manta’s operations when the agreement expires in November 2009, most likely to bases in Curaçao and El Salvador.
Together, officials here said, those three bases, known in military jargon as F.O.L.’s, or forward operating locations, helped seize $1.1 billion worth of drugs in 2007, with the focus of the seizures on smuggling out of Colombia. The officials had no estimate of how much cocaine eluded them.
“We have had a lot of success in the fight against drugs with the F.O.L.,” Linda Jewell, the American ambassador to Ecuador, said recently. “We will talk to the government to find ways in which we can continue working together.”
But some antinarcotics experts in Ecuador and the United States question whether it is worth the cost of maintaining the base, both economically and politically.
And many Colombian traffickers have shifted tactics in ways that render Manta less effective. Smugglers, for instance, have begun to rely less on speedboats and more on semi-submersibles, the low-tech subs built for $1 million each in Colombia’s jungle that easily elude high-tech Awacs.
Russell Crandall, a former White House adviser and an expert on Andean antinarcotics efforts, said interdiction efforts, as well as Colombia’s resilient drug trade, would survive without Manta. “Manta is just icing on the cake,” he said. “We had the drug war going full speed before Manta, and we’ll have it full speed after Manta.”
Meanwhile, the four-member crews take off each day here for 12-hour sorties. “We have hours of sheer boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” said Lt. Charles Moore, the leader of one Awacs crew. “It is like finding needles in a haystack.”