U.S.-Colombia Strategic Accord Prompts Questions at Home, Across Region

A mechanic works on a plane at Colombia's Germán Olano base, which would house U.S. troops under the agreement.
A mechanic works on a plane at Colombia's Germán Olano base, which would house U.S. troops under the agreement. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
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By Juan Forero and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 27, 2009

PUERTO SALGAR, Colombia -- On a recent sweltering day, Colombian fighter jets took to the sky from this country's most important air base, while mechanics remounted the engine of a medical evacuation plane.

Soon, American pilots and crews will also be living and working here, assigned to fly sophisticated surveillance aircraft in a battle alongside Colombian forces against Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers, Colombian officials say.

U.S. and Colombian officials say a new agreement to deploy U.S. aircraft and service members to this base is little more than the formalization of a string of loose military accords that go as far back as 1952. But the deal, which would allow American forces access to as many as seven bases, has prompted concern among South American presidents and an outcry from neighboring Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez warns of an impending U.S. invasion.

On Friday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is expected to defend the plan at a regional summit in Argentina, arguing that it assists in the battle against the drug trade and has no offensive purpose. But even in Colombia, which accuses Chávez of meddling in its internal affairs, lawmakers are questioning whether the plan is legal and whether it could escalate the country's 45-year-old conflict, among other issues.

Colombian officials say the accord creates a long-term home here at the Germán Olano de Palanquero base for American P-3 Orions and AWAC aircraft that will patrol west into the Pacific, north into the Caribbean and as far east as the country's porous border with Venezuela.

"The focus is narco-trafficking," the base commander, Brig. Gen. Guillermo León, said during a recent tour of Germán Olano, which Colombian officials say the United States has long coveted for its strategic location. "And the sensors on these planes are precisely to control airspace, not to do intelligence on anybody."

The soon-to-be signed accord also gives the United States access to two other air bases, two army installations and two naval ports, he said.

But Colombian lawmakers who serve on a congressional commission that deals with security and defense said that they first learned about the agreement through news media reports in July and that they then received only a smattering of details in closed-door briefings with Colombian military officials. An Interior Ministry document justifying the plan speaks of a "changing nature of transnational threats" and the need for "joint exercises" with the Americans.

"Those are terms that are very ambiguous and broad," Sen. Juan Manuel Galán said. "Without seeing the text, it's hard to understand exactly what was agreed upon."

Sen. Cecilia López said the plan should have been debated in Congress. "Why is there so much secrecy?" she asked.

In Washington, Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Patrick J. Leahy, senior Democrats who help shape policy on Latin America, asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a letter why they had not been consulted about the plan and wondered why the Obama administration was deepening its ties with a military they accuse of human rights abuses.

U.S. Assurances Do Little

The accord comes as neighboring Ecuador ends a 10-year lease agreement that had permitted the United States to fly surveillance planes out of a base in Manta, on the Pacific Coast. Those planes searched out semi-submersible vessels and high-powered boats carrying cocaine north from Colombia's coastline.

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