Ecuador Targets a U.S. Air Base

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When the Colombian military made its controversial incursion into neighboring Ecuador two months ago, it may well have removed more than just a camp full of leftist Colombian guerrillas. The raid may wind up taking out a $70 million U.S. Air Force base as well. On Monday, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said he's "convinced" the U.S. aided Colombia in the March 1 attack and reiterated his suspicions that U.S. intelligence agencies had infiltrated Ecuador's armed forces and police — remarks that seem to all but assure that the small South American nation will not renew the lease for the U.S. antinarcotics surveillance base at Manta on Ecuador's Pacific coast. For Correa, "the political costs" of letting the base stay "outweigh the benefits," says Freddy Rivera, a security expert at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty University in Quito.

Correa, an ally of Venezuela's left-wing, anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez, has made no secret of wanting to give the Manta base the boot since he became President last year. He views the facility — which the U.S. Air Force calls a Forward Operating Location (FOL) and not a full-fledged military base — as an affront to Ecuadorian sovereignty. Many if not most Ecuadorians agree, if only because of what they consider the questionable circumstances under which it was established in 1999. That year the U.S. failed to reach a deal with Panama on continued use of the Howard Air Force Base for counter-drug operations. So Jamil Mahuad, who was Ecuador's conservative President at the time and was facing unrest over harsh austerity policies meant to reassure foreign investors, let Washington set up at Manta with a 10-year lease that required no rent. (Mahuad was toppled in an indigenous-led uprising just weeks later.)

But the Colombian incursion, which sparked an Andean diplomatic crisis, appears to have given Correa the leverage he was looking for to make sure Ecuador's National Assembly doesn't renew that lease. "I'm convinced that the United States provided information and cutting-edge technologies without which the [March 1] attack wouldn't have been possible," Correa said on a visit to France this week. In addition to breaking off diplomatic relations with Colombia since the March raid, Correa has also alleged that U.S. spies have burrowed into his military and security forces. Last month he purged his top military brass and installed a civilian, Javier Ponce, as his new defense minister. On Monday, Ponce pledged a two-month investigation of Ecuador's intelligence community.

In the town of Montecristi, where a 130-member constitutional assembly is at work writing a new Ecuadorian Constitution, the majority delegates from Correa's party, Acuerdo Pais (Country Accord), are now calling for an "audit" of the U.S. operation at Manta. That would include a probe of the flight of a U.S. Hercules C130 plane that took off the night of Feb. 29 and returned to Manta at 4 a.m. March 1, around the time of the Colombian sortie. Only one hour of activities from that nine-hour flight are logged on file — reflecting a longstanding complaint by Ecuadorian officials that Manta's flight logs are only partially open to inspection by the host country. "There is an information vacuum," says Assemblywoman Tania Hermida, a Correa ally and member of the sovereignty committee. "The situation is so delicate that we need to know its activities over 100% of that [Feb. 29–March 1] period." She adds: "Any concrete proof that the Manta base was involved [in the Colombian attack] would be more than enough reason to close it immediately."

Hermida concedes, however, that no such proof has surfaced. Though the Bush Administration has supported the actions of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally in the region, Washington denies it directly aided Colombia's military in March. The Manta FOL commander, Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, insists that U.S. aircraft there, including AWACS surveillance planes that fly almost two dozen missions a week, are "only looking for illicit drugs" and drug-ferrying boats in the Pacific, and that their radar systems are activated exclusively over international waters, not on land. Ecuadorian flight control approves Manta's departures and landings, and Ecuadorian and Colombian liaison officers are on board during operations. (Ecuadorian military analysts note that U.S. help could have come not from Manta but from posts inside Colombia.)

Some observers say Correa is playing up accusations of U.S.-Colombia skulduggery in order to deflect charges that Ecuador harbors guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. Colombia has also accused Chavez of giving the FARC major financial support. Correa and Chavez deny the accusations; and Correa for his part insists that his military has removed numerous FARC camps from Ecuadorian territory.

Either way, it appears all but certain now that the Manta base will be one of the most high-profile casualties of the Andean fracas. U.S. officials argue the Manta FOL has played a key role improving drug interdiction as the southern tip of a triangle that includes U.S. FOLs in El Salvador and the Caribbean island of Curacao. They estimate those three FOLs intercepted, in street-value terms, $4.2 billion worth of cocaine and other drugs in 2007. But many anti-drug experts in the U.S. nonetheless argue the bases are expendible in the larger interdiction picture. In the town of Manta itself the base, which has an annual budget of $6.5 million, is popular for the comparatively well-paying jobs it provides locals as well as the medical equipment and fire-fighting training it has donated. "We're tenants and the citizens of Manta are excellent hosts," says Leonard.

But the feeling outside Manta isn't so hospitable. If Ecuadorian voters approve the new constitution in a referendum later this year, as expected, it would ban any future foreign bases. (If the new charter takes effect before the Manta lease is up, say some observers, it could force the FOL's early removal, though few see that as likely.) "It's an issue of dignity and sovereignty," says National Assemblyman Maria Augusta Calle, also a member of Correa's party. "How many foreign bases are there in the U.S.?"

Washington's anti-narcotics effort, meanwhile, already seems to be preparing for a future without Manta. The U.S. Navy now plans to revive the Fourth Fleet (which had been scrapped a half century ago), led by a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to cruise the hemisphere's waters in part to search for drugs. The U.S. is also considering a replacement FOL in Colombia — which is, as the Andean crisis has so uncomfortably demonstrated to Washington, one of the few places left in the Americas where the Yanqui military is welcome.