Abandoned homes in Chinulito Friday links (Monday edition)
Jul 162009

This week, the United States is closing down its counter-drug operations at the Manta airbase on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. At the same time, it has nearly completed an agreement with Colombian authorities to use several facilities in Colombia. Colombia’s defense, interior and foreign relations ministers gave a press conference yesterday confirming this, after weeks of increasing speculation in the country’s media.

The Colombian facilities in question are:

  • Three air force bases that may host U.S. aircraft and personnel:
    • Alberto Powels, on the Caribbean coast in Malambo, Atlántico (basically, attached to the Barranquilla airport), headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 3rd Combat Command;
    • Capitán Luis Fernando Gómez Niño, in Apiay, Meta roughly 100 miles southeast of Bogotá, headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 2nd Combat Command; and
    • Palanquero, in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca roughly 100 miles northwest of Bogotá, headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 1st Combat Command.
  • Two naval bases that might receive more frequent visits from U.S. vessels:
    • Bahía Málaga, on the Pacific coast in Valle del Cauca; and
    • Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast in Bolívar.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports that “Colombia is also interested in seeing that presence in at least two more bases where U.S. personnel are already assigned: Larandia (Caquetá) and Tolemaida [(Tolima)].” Both are army bases.

Colombian officials contend that the U.S. troops stationed at the facilities will not play combat roles or be involved in hostilities. Those at the bases will more likely be technicians, pilots, advisors and intelligence personnel. Their mission will extend beyond counter-narcotics to include “counter-terrorism” – presumably support for Colombian military operations against guerrillas. Intelligence-gathering is likely a principal role for the U.S. personnel at the bases, and El Tiempo reports that “the accord contemplates that Colombia would have access to real-time intelligence information gathered by the planes that land at the three bases.”

The agreement establishing the U.S. presence at the bases would probably extend for 10 years or more, and could be signed in as little as two weeks, according to El Tiempo. The Obama administration’s 2010 Defense budget request [PDF] already includes $46 million to make construction improvements to the Palanquero base.

Replacing Manta

The new arrangement seeks to replace the U.S. presence at the Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador, which is about to end as a 10-year agreement signed in 1999 [PDF] expires in November. The Manta facility was one of three that the Clinton administration set up to replace Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which closed when U.S. troops left that country in 1999. (The other two replacement facilities, which remain open, are at Comalapa, El Salvador and Aruba/Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles.) Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who has famously pledged to “cut off his arm” before allowing the U.S. military presence to continue, refused to renew the agreement.

The U.S. facility at the Manta base, known both as a “Forward Operating Location” and a “Cooperative Security Location,” has hosted flights whose mission has been limited to counter-narcotics missions (and, as needed, emergency humanitarian or search-and-rescue missions). “Counter-narcotics” was defined to exclude missions targeting Colombian armed groups, and U.S. officials have told us repeatedly over the years that missions from the Manta base only overfly the eastern Pacific Ocean seeking to detect maritime drug trafficking.

The Manta Forward Operating Location consisted of 22 buildings on 27 hectares (67 acres) of the airbase, about 5 percent of the base’s total territory. The buildings, Southern Command reports, “include dining and lodging facilities, office buildings, warehouses, an aircraft ramp, hangar and fire station.” This zone was ceded exclusively to U.S. personnel, who under normal circumstances totaled between 200 and 300 people, most of them employees of private contractors.

How will the Colombian facilities be different from Manta?

We can’t answer that definitively yet, since we have no access to the draft agreement and are not privy to negotiations between U.S. and Colombian officials. However, three areas of apparent, and significant, difference from Manta are:

  • The number of bases, obviously.
  • The ability to carry out non-drug missions.
  • How separate the U.S. facilities will be from the Colombian units using the same bases. For force-protection reasons, it is likely that U.S. negotiators would prefer an arrangement similar to Manta, in which access to areas where U.S. personnel live and work is strongly restricted. It appears, though, that Colombia is seeking more control over the entry, exit and location of U.S. personnel on its bases. The nature of this arrangement is not yet clear.

What will the new, non-drug missions be?

Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez said yesterday that “the objective is the fight against, and the end of, narcotrafficking and terrorism.” Whether the mission definition will include only “terrorism” or will expand to include undefined “other” threats isn’t clear. It is likely, though, that U.S. aircraft and personnel will be involved in more missions against the FARC. Intelligence operations – particularly those targeted at the FARC leadership – could increase significantly.

How is this different from what U.S. military personnel are already doing in Colombia?

With U.S. trainers, advisors, intelligence people and technicians already making frequent, long-term appearances at bases like Larandia, Tolemaida, Tres Esquinas (Caquetá/Putumayo), Arauca and elsewhere, what is different now? The answer is: we don’t know.

One obvious answer is that the sorts of anti-drug surveillance missions that were occurring in Manta, involving sophisticated aircraft like P-3 Orions and E-3 AWACS, will now be originating in Colombia. Presumably, more planes and a slightly bigger footprint will mean more far more intelligence-gathering missions over Colombia than ever before, which may bring a notable increase in intelligence gathered about guerrilla locations and movements.

All of these airbases are on the other side of the Andes from the Pacific Ocean. How will the U.S. aircraft perform Manta’s mission of detecting and monitoring maritime drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific?

Again, we don’t know. The eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America, is a heavily used vector for getting drugs out of South America and into Central America and Mexico, as this 2005 map shows. U.S. officials claim that Manta has played a role in about two-thirds of drug seizures in that zone since 1999.

The new bases do not have the same ability to cover the eastern Pacific. Will the eastern Pacific then become narcotraffickers’ preferred route, with little chance of detection? No idea. Possibly.

Is this constitutional in Colombia?

Opponents of the base deal insist that it is not. Indeed, Article 173 of Colombia’s Constitution appears to require that the Senate “permit the transit of foreign troops through the territory of the Republic.”

What is the immunity issue?

The degree of immunity from prosecution that U.S. personnel might enjoy is, according to press reports, one of the stickiest points in the negotiations. The newsweekly Cambio explains


This discussion is not minor, and it was one of the points that justified Ecuador’s decision to close Manta. That country’s Constituent Assembly considered that about 300 irregular and criminal acts – illegal detentions and seizures of Ecuadorians and their goods, robberies, murders, injuries and paternity cases – are attributed to U.S. military personnel, and received no response from U.S. judicial authorities.

Should the neighbors be worried?

Foreign Minister Bermúdez, today’s El Espectador notes, “said that Colombia’s decisions to allow operations in Colombia have no reason to affect relations with neighboring countries, since all activities will be carried out in Colombia’s national territory.” Colombia’s neighbors, however, may not see it that way, argue critics like former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, who said the deal is “like lending your apartment’s balcony to someone from outside the block so that he can spy on your neighbors.”

Colombia’s neighbors have seen the country nearly double the size of its armed forces in the past decade. They condemned the March 2008 incursion into Ecuadorian territory that killed top FARC leader “Raúl Reyes.” And they have noted frequent accusations from top officials, particularly recently departed Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, alleging that the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador are actively harboring and supporting the FARC.

In that environment, the addition of more military personnel from the United States will not be viewed as a regional confidence and security-building measure. To the contrary – it is more likely to add to tensions.

Will this be a backdoor for U.S. military assistance?

“Among [the Colombian government's] objectives is also to fill the gaps left by the eventual cutbacks in aid for Plan Colombia,” noted Cambio magazine’s recent cover story about the base negotiations. John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. advocacy group, worries that the bases will constitute an “end run” around significant cuts in U.S. military aid to Colombia since 2007.

They’re probably right. Base construction funding is aid. Provision of real-time intelligence is aid. An increased presence of trainers and advisors will mean more aid too. And the Colombian government may expect this show of “goodwill” to serve as leverage to prevent further cuts in U.S. military aid. However, the kind of aid that made up the bulk of prior years’ packages – grants of helicopters, expensive contracts to maintain Colombia’s own aircraft, aerial fumigation, and massive Special Forces training programs – will not increase as a result of the bases.

What will become of the troop cap?

Since 2005, the United States has operated within a limit of 800 military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors who may be in Colombia at any given time. Congress required such a “troop cap” when Plan Colombia began, out of concern that Colombia’s complicated conflict offered a high possibility of “mission creep.” In recent years, now that U.S. personnel are not helping the Colombian security forces to set up entire new units from scratch, the U.S. presence has not approached the cap, and U.S. and Colombian officials insist that the presence at the new bases will not require an increase to the cap.

It is not clear, though, whether the “troop cap” will be enshrined in the two governments’ base-usage agreement, or whether it will remain simply a matter of U.S. law, which can always be changed.

What happens if a Colombian military unit stationed at the same base commits human rights abuses?

This is not wild speculation. For more than four years, the Colombian Air Force’s 1st Combat Command, based at Palanquero, had its U.S. aid suspended because of its failure to cooperate with investigations of a 1998 indiscriminate bombing at Santo Domingo, Arauca, that killed 17 civilians. What happens if U.S. personnel at one of these bases suddenly find themselves co-located with a unit involved in a similar outrage?

The answer to that question is a big “we don’t know.”

24 Responses to “U.S. use of Colombian bases: more questions than answers”

  1. Montserrat Nicolas Says:

    Nice Adam!
    This is the kind of summary I was looking for.

  2. acosta Says:

    will soldiers be able to go off post??? is army personal gonna be attach to any of this bases?

  3. equinoXio » » Yankees, welcome home Says:

    [...] renovación del contrato, sus operaciones se trasladarán a nuestro país, lo que presupone un nuevo conflicto con los vecinos y muchas suspicacias en lo [...]

  4. Camilo Wilson Says:

    The location of U.S. forces at the bases in Colombia is not an encouraging development. But neither is it a surprising one. For some months now, evidence has filtered out of the Obama administration that his policy vis-a-vis the Americas will differ little from that of the Bush administration. The fundamental similarity is in the role of the military, which continues to drive regional policy. One sees this in the “soft” approach of the U.S. toward the Honduran military and the new government that came to power there through a military coup. One sees it in Colombia. One also sees it in some of the appointments that Obama has made to run his Latin policy-appointments that are stale and uncreative, and basically represent represent retreads from the Clinton era. Obama aims to do what previous U.S. governments have done: support the inviable socioeconomic status quo through military force, or the threat of such force.

    I will predict that U.S. actions toward Latin America will, as has often been the case, occasion unrest, even violence, over the next few years. That Obama has failed to grasp the new dynamics at play in the region is sad. He had a golden opportunity to do some very positive things in the Americas, his own hemisphere. For whatever reaons, he has failed to meet the challenge. He has the same 50-year-old perverted view as to what constitues a threat to U.S. national security.

  5. Corvina Says:

    A video was released today linking FARC money to President of Ecuador Rafael Correa’s campaign for office. First, lets dispense with the notion that the video was cooked up by the Colombians to falsely incriminate Correa. There are no doubts it’s Mono Jojoy giving the speech. Second, I wonder what runs through the mind of an elected Colombian official when you 1) know that the FARC takes refuge in neighboring countries and 2) learn that the FARC have supported the electoral campaign of a sitting president in a neighboring country? I think making deals like the one described in the blog may be natural.


  6. Marcos Says:

    Off-Topic. My, what a nice 15 minutes FARC video is on SEMANA.COM


    Carry on with the actual topic, but this is very, very nice.



  7. Marcos Says:

    A bit more info for you people, before you start saying that the video is a fake or that Uribe is manipulating the AP, its reporters and its video experts like he manipulated Interpol’s, etc. etc. etc.

    Video beleaguers Ecuador’s president

    The Associated Press
    Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.18.2009

    BOGOTA — An hour-long video police found in a computer of an alleged rebel appears to confirm that Colombia’s largest rebel army gave money to the 2006 election campaign of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

    The video shows the second-ranking commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia reading the deathbed manifesto of founding leader Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda. The manifesto states that the FARC made contributions to Correa’s campaign, but it’s possible that Correa wasn’t aware of them.

    The video, given to The Associated Press by a government official on condition of anonymity due to political sensitivity, adds weight to evidence found in a half-dozen electronic documents recovered at a rebel camp destroyed in a cross-border raid last year. Correa has accused Colombia of fabricating the documents, despite an investigation by the global police agency Interpol that determined they were not altered.

    [snip for length]

    It appears unlikely that the video could be fake. AP video experts found no signs of tampering.

    Also, Briceno is a known FARC leader with whom AP reporters had frequent contact from 1999-2002, and it is clearly him in the video.



  8. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Marcos I have another link for you. Would you please explain the readers what’s the difference between the two accusations, regarding banana countries’ presidents being involved with terrorist groups?


  9. Marcos Says:

    No, I am going to assume that some readers already have enough wisdom to see the differences while the others wouldn’t really care regardless of what I would write.



  10. Santiago García Says:

    Obviously, this is a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.


  11. farfanugen Says:

    According to Noticias Uno, the Colombian police crudely spliced together nine distinct fragments into one video…


  12. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Marcos, goes without saying or saying it differently: some readers are fanatic rightwing madhats while the rest are pinko commies right? he he he :mrgreen:

  13. Marcos Says:

    Ah, I didn’t know that was this site’s entire readership.

    Look, I’m not going to sit here and explain how fragmented but linked videos files work, as a matter of principle, which is not really that “crude” in terms of technology. It’s actually quite common to see that if you’ve ever heard of Youtube and similar websites or if you’ve ever seen how movies can be illegally distributed these days.

    Laugh all you want at the idea, Jaime Bustos, but unless you’ve seen the entire hour long running length, as that’s the full length the AP has reported (because, surprise, they have seen the entire video and you have not), that fact changes nothing.

    But even looking at the 15 minute excerpt in Semana is pretty informative.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go drink the blood of innocent peasants and dress their bodies up.



  14. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Sure Marcos, but don’t forget to put roses on their graves

  15. Camilla Says:

    Well Hugie Oogie, guess those fancy Russki weapons you promised to fly over Bogota weren’t such a clever idea after all, were they? You also might consider doing something about those FARC camps you’ve been such a gracious host to. And declaring war at a drop of a hat? Somehow your neighbors don’t really trust you after threats like those.

    Hugie, you’re going to have to get used to these bases now. You made your bed, you lie in it. Don’t like it? Tough.

  16. Kana’an Online » Blog Archive » Obama and Latin America: The First Six Months Says:

    [...] aid, $268 million for military and police. Recently the administration has also sought to finalize agreements that will expand the direct U.S. military presence within [...]

  17. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Time for transparency on the base agreement Says:

    [...] to use several Colombian bases. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did not attend the meeting. (Here is an overview of what we know about what Colombia and the United States are negotiating; it hasn’t changed [...]

  18. Mario Henriquez Says:

    I believe the US is trynig to destabilize , the hole South american region , obvisously , it has failed , it failed in Viet Nam , it is failing in IRAq , will fail in Afganistan , and now it is trying to make us ltinos go into conflict .

    Im a victim of a fabricated case in the US , whereas special agents fo the DEA and a DEA C.I. concocted a case against me , not only that the US governtment , has acted in an unacceptable way towards people of spanish origin , history show they have been middeling in south american politics since the 1960´s .

    Further more it trains terrorist in the School of the Americas located in Fort Benning , Georgia . Now it si using that little shit head Alvaro Uribe , which by the way has an open indictement in the US courts , he is part of the 5k1.1 , offering assistanc to teh US , becuase if he does not he to will go to Combita Jail , put on a US marshall , white plane , with a tail number .

    The US , likes to make all these problems , but it forgets all the bad things it has done . Oliver North in iran Contra , should have been in prison , as well as the Senior H Bush , and Barry seal which suddenly dissapeared to the underworld .

    This whole fiasco , is wrong , the US knows it . Stop ok incursions into lands that do not belong or ever will belong to you .

    The bases , should not be there , what if we put our bases in the US , how would those kkk congress men like it , Im sure they won´t .

    By the way the DHS/ ICE , is full of bigotry as well , on July 2005 , agents of the Department of HOMELAND SECURITY AND IMMIGRATION CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT , harrassed , threaten and persecuted , my all US born family members in the name of national security . Way go special agent Kilbride of the NY/NJ region but wrong move asshole , the US soldiers at the future Colombian bases shold not be left of the hook , if they kill or maim in foreign countries . They should be brought in front of an international court.

    Uribe should attend all south american meetings , if he does not he then is trying to sell us out . Uribe if you do , understand that anyone can find you anywhere you go too .

    Uribe , should be brought to justice for the bombing in Angustura , Ecuadorian territory , maybe i will go get him and lock him up . Plan Colombia will fail , in the long run .

    Uribe , watch yourself , there are many foriegn mercs , waiting for you to make a bad move , why? do you just turn yourself into the US prison system and do us all a favor .

    All big Colombian drug lords , get to make deals upthere in the US , we all know you delt drugs with the help of the AUC and teh DEA and the CIA , those knuckleheads .

    Ok lets get it on , left against right , right against left , they all the same . Fuck you´s all , Ill meet all ya in the jungles , we and the jungle indians will have fun with you all . Let the games begin . Uribe watch yourself . Hey yanquis go home we all know the game , now .

  19. john Says:

    colombian president is being fooled by the US who are there to dominate the world and have control over important natural resources like the petroluem in venezuela,those bases are just there to be spying venezuela´s military ability,and also pushing those stupid venezuelan opposition leaders to over throw the world´s best president(hugo chaves).

  20. Global Voices Online » Colombia: The Extraordinary UNASUR Meeting in Bariloche Says:

    [...] Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was held in Bariloche, Argentina, primarily to discuss the use of 7 Colombian military bases by United States military personnel. The issue had prompted criticism from Venezuela, Ecuador, and [...]

  21. Colombia: The Extraordinary UNASUR Meeting in Bariloche :: Elites TV Says:

    [...] Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was held in Bariloche, Argentina, primarily to discuss the use of 7 Colombian military bases by United States military personnel. The issue had prompted criticism from Venezuela, Ecuador, and [...]

  22. Global Voices em Português » Colômbia: Encontro dos líderes da UNASUL em Bariloche Says:

    [...] de Nações Sul-Americanas (UNASUL) em Bariloche, Argentina, primariamente para discutir o uso de 7 bases militares colombianas pelos militares dos Estados Unidos. Tal questão sofreu críticas da Venezuela, Equador, e Bolívia [...]

  23. Jorge Says:

    Qué hace una foto de Lago Agrio – Ecuador, como encabezado de esta página? Acaso quieren manipular el pensamiento de los visitantes de esta web? Espero una respuesta lo más pronto posible.

    Pd: con sus bases militares lo único que quieren es aumentar la fuerza. Dejen de hacerse los salvadores del mundo y no digan que su unico objetivo es mejorar la situación. Estados Unidos es un imperio, para la mala suerte de todos, y su objetivo primordial es ganar adeptos (entre ellos Uribe) frente al odio mundial que se han ganado (esto no va para todos los gringos obviamente, conozco gente muy buena estadounidense, va para toda esa mierda de dirigentes nacionales hipócritas que solo piensan en su bienestar, egoístas que quieren más plata y más poder sin importar nada).

  24. Jenny Mccausland Says:

    Monday; November 23, 2009
    Dear Commander Powell;
    I´m writing you and hope you are well. Water hydrates the body than all other fluids.
    The reason I´m writing you is that an alcoholic seargent last name Gonzales, is murdering people near the military police batallion in the burrough of Paraiso, in the city of: Barranquilla, in the department of: Atlantico. The location of the military police batallion is near the zoo of th city o Barranquilla.
    Gonzales is from the city of Huila. I´m not sure where Huila is located they tell me it´s near Bogota.
    The facial characteristics is that of, Andy Gibb, of the Brothers Gibb. Gonzales isn´t reprimander for murdering people.
    Please remove him.
    Thank you.

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