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.
"Manta allowed tremendous coverage of the eastern Pacific, all the way to Central America and Mexico," said Gabriel Marcella, a Latin America specialist who recently retired from the U.S. Army War College.
Senior State Department officials say that the United States already had access to Colombian installations on an ad-hoc basis and that the accord removes bureaucratic hurdles, such as the diplomatic notes required for permission to land American planes.
The State Department said the number of U.S. forces in Colombia would not exceed 800 military personnel and 600 civilian contractors, a limit set in 2000 when Washington began a major counter-narcotics program here that has delivered more than $6 billion in aid. American officials said U.S. service members would have some immunity from prosecution under Colombian law.
American officials say access to this installation in Puerto Salgar and the Apiay air base in southern Meta state puts U.S. military hardware closer to the historical heart of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the guerrilla group.
"If you ask me if the missions will take advantage of this accord in the future to incorporate the FARC in the target zones, the response is yes, no doubt at all," Ambassador William R. Brownfield said last week in an interview with El Tiempo, the national newspaper.
President Obama stressed the enhanced counter-narcotics aspect of the agreement in a phone conversation Friday with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose country has expressed concern, a senior administration official said. Obama made clear, the official said, that the plan "does not involve U.S. bases" in Colombia.
Although Colombia remains the world's largest cocaine producer, a recent U.N. report said that cocaine production here fell 28 percent from 2007 to 2008 and that the size of the country's coca crop contracted by 18 percent. U.S. and Colombian officials say an ambitious drug-eradication program, coupled with aerial and maritime interdiction efforts, is starting to pay off.
That explanation has done little to ease concern in the region, particularly in Venezuela and Ecuador, where a Colombian airstrike last year on a rebel camp triggered a diplomatic spat with that country's president, Rafael Correa. In an interview, Ecuador's minister of internal and external security, Miguel Carvajal, said his government is suspicious of Washington's motives.
"We believe this goes much further than the conflict against narco-trafficking and the guerrillas," he said.
Carvajal also said his government was wary because the Americans operating out of Manta had revealed little to Ecuador about their missions. "They gave us the information they wanted to give us," he said.Terms of the Agreement
Under the agreement, León said, a tarmac at Germán Olano would be widened to accommodate large U.S. planes. A control tower and facilities where missions would be planned and evaluated would be built. Colombian officials say as many as 200 Americans could be stationed here.
The U.S. military would be required to provide Colombian authorities with detailed information about every mission, Colombian Defense Ministry officials said, and a Colombian noncommissioned officer would be aboard every flight inside the country.
The American surveillance planes flying over Colombia, León said, direct Colombian fighter planes to suspicious flights. Under a long-standing "air bridge denial" program, he said, Colombian fighters then force down planes suspected of carrying cocaine. The program has cut down the aerial transport of cocaine inside Colombia, forcing traffickers to rely on land routes.
But senior Colombian officials and counter-drug authorities say flights that carry cocaine from isolated jungle airstrips into Venezuela are so short that they are hard to detect. León said the U.S. surveillance planes would work to discover those flights more quickly.
"We have to be vigilant so those areas where there are no flights stay that way and to try to control areas where they continue, including areas close to the border," he said.
Sheridan reported from Washington.