By Gonzalo Solano
Saturday, September 19, 2009
QUITO, Ecuador, Sept. 18 -- The last 15 U.S. troops in Ecuador left the country's Manta air base Friday, officially closing the American military post in what Ecuador's government calls a recovery of sovereignty.
The small U.S. mission flew anti-narcotics flights meant to help catch cocaine smugglers close to the point of production.
But Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, promised in his 2006 election campaign that he would not renew the United States' 10-year lease on the base, located on the Pacific coast. A new constitution approved in a referendum last year officially prohibited foreign military bases on Ecuadoran soil.
"The Ecuadoran government is very satisfied to comply with a constitutional mandate and deliver on a campaign promise . . . by fully recuperating our sovereignty over the Manta base," Ecuador's security minister, Miguel Carvajal, said.
The U.S. anti-narcotics force flew its last surveillance mission from the base in July. About 220 Americans had occupied 5 percent of Manta's international airport since November 1999, but they were allowed no more than eight planes at a time.
Martha Youth, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Quito, praised Ecuador's cooperation in anti-narcotics operations despite the closure of the base.
"We leave Manta conscious that these have been 10 very successful years. We've done good work in cooperation with the Ecuadoran authorities," Youth said.
Carvajal said Ecuador plans to continue cooperating with U.S. anti-narcotics efforts. "Relations with the U.S. remain very good. We have no problem in continuing to cooperate," he said.
U.S. plans to transfer the interdiction missions to bases leased in Colombia have sparked controversy across South America and saber rattling by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an ally of Correa.
During a ceremony marking the U.S. departure, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Fander Falconí referred to Latin America as "the great motherland" and said the region "rejects all forms of supervision that attempt to bring about subordination."
Opposition lawmaker César Montúfar said the departure of U.S. troops is "worrisome, especially because of our proximity to Colombia and because drug trafficking could grow in our country." The United States' E-3 AWACs and P-3 Orion surveillance planes based in Manta were credited with about 60 percent of drug interdiction in the eastern Pacific region.
Ecuador produces little coca -- the base ingredient in cocaine -- but is bordered by Colombia and Peru, the world's top cocaine producers.