New US military base slated for Colombia?

Colombia has offered to host US military operations currently run out of Ecuador, once the lease for the base there expires in two years, according to a senior Pentagon official who spoke to reporters in July. Such a change would consolidate Colombia’s position as the Latin American country most militarized by the United States.

The US military base in Manta, Ecuador, set up to run counter-drug flights when Panama threw out military bases in 1999, has become a controversial presence that a majority of Ecuadoreans want closed. President Rafael Correa, who was inaugurated in January, pledged that his government would do so.

When Ecuador in early May withdrew from annual naval exercises led by the United States that were scheduled to be held off its coastline, the Southern Command said that the exercises would be held instead in Malaga Bay on Colombia’s Pacific coast, near Buenaventura. Those events occurred in the wake of tensions between Ecuador and Colombia over Colombian military operations on the two countries’ border.

The United States maintains five radar sites in Colombia (Riohacha, San Andrés, Marandua, San José del Guaviare and Tres Esquinas), all operated by the ITT corporation, as well as a “Forward Operating Site” in Apiay, according to a report on US contractors in Colombia recently released by the State Department. Apiay is one of a handful of sites in Colombia where the US Army 7th Special Forces Group trains thousands of Colombian soldiers every year.

According to the US official, who requested anonymity, keeping the air base in Manta is still on the table, in spite of President Correa’s public statements. One arrangement that he said is being explored is allowing U.S. military or surveillance aircraft to land in Ecuador, but not at a fixed US base.

“Any stories [about moving the base to Colombia] are just rumors,” Jorge Ruiz of the US Southern Command told FOR. He and US Embasssy spokesman Aaron Sherinian in Quito said that the United States is still focused on base operations in Manta. Embassy handouts describe the base as “consist[ing] of parking spaces for up to 8 unarmed aircraft” and “a handful of small buildings” which house up to 500 US soldiers. Flights run from Manta have also been implicated in operations to detain immigrants attempt to emigrate from Ecuador by sea.

John Lindsay-Poland for Fellowship of Reconciliation Colombia Program Monthly Update, July

Sources: Reuters, Bloomberg, El Tiempo, July 12; “Report to Congress on Certain Counternarcotics Activities in Colombia”; FOR interviews; El Comercio, May 2-3; US Embassy Quito handout on FOL; Naufragio, unpublished MS by Juan Carlos Calderón.

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