The United States and Colombia are nearing agreement on expanding the
U.S. military’s presence in this conflict-torn nation, potentially
basing hundreds of Americans in a central valley to support Air Force
drug interdiction missions.
Both sides say they hope a fifth round of talks slated for later
this month in Bogota will seal a 10-year lease deal. Two of the
Colombian ministers involved were to answer questions about the talks
at a public hearing Wednesday following complaints about secrecy
surrounding the negotiations.
Opponents worry that a
broadened U.S. military role in the world’s No. 1 cocaine-producing
nation could antagonize Colombia’s leftist neighbors and draw
Washington deeper into Colombia’s complicated, long-running conflict
with leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries.
Details of the negotiations are secret and U.S. officials declined comment other than to confirm the talks’ next round.
senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with
negotiations told The Associated Press that the idea is to make
Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations – though without
exceeding a limit of 1,400 U.S. military personnel and contractors set
by the U.S. Congress.
The Colombian officials, who spoke on
condition of anonymity due to the open negotiations, said the current
draft accord specifies more frequent “visits” by U.S. aircraft and
warships to three air bases as well as two naval bases – at Malaga Bay
in the Pacific and Cartagena in the Caribbean. Colombia could also get
preferential treatment in arms and aircraft purchases.
centerpiece of the talks is the Palanquero air base at Puerto Salgar on
the Magdalena river 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogota.
U.S. interdiction missions it would assume – identifying suspect
vessels and planes so Coast Guard and Navy ships can intercept them and
look for drugs – had been flown out of Manta, Ecuador, on the Pacific
About 220 Americans shared space at a Manta’s international airport but were allowed no more than eight planes at a time.
E-3 AWACs and P-3 Orion surveillance planes based there were credited
with about 60 percent of drug interdiction in the eastern Pacific. But
the U.S. mission there is shutting down this week because President
Rafael Correa refused to renew its lease, calling their presence a
violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty.
Palanquero was off-limits
to U.S. military operations until April 2008 after a human rights
sanction: A Colombian military helicopter operating out of it had
killed 17 civilians in the 1998 bombing of a northern town that was
initially covered up.
A bill passed by the U.S. House and
pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for construction at
Palanquero, which has a 3,500-meter runway and two huge hangars and is
home to Colombia’s main fighter wing.
The money would be
released 15 days after an agreement is signed, according to a key
congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s
not authorized to comment publicly on such matters.
Embassy declined to comment about the talks, as did Colombia’s acting
defense minister, Gen. Freddy Padilla. “Nothing is agreed upon until
everything is agreed upon,” told the AP.
Asked recently about
the talks, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield stressed that Washington
would not be acquiring bases but rather obtaining increased access to
U.S. Southern Command spokesman Robert Appin said the Pentagon would have no immediate comment.
one indication of the Pentagon’s goals can be found in a U.S. Air
Mobility Command document “Global En Route Strategy” that was presented
in early April at a symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
Beyond counternarcotics, Palanquero could become a “cooperative
security location” from which “mobility operations could be executed”
the document proposes.
A potential jumping-off point for operations by expeditionary forces, in other words.
“Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling” from Palanquero, the document says.
Pardo, a former defense minister and candidate for president in May
2010 elections, has complained of secrecy surrounding the negotiations,
and worries about alienating other South American nations. The radar
and communications intercept ability of U.S. aircraft can extend well
beyond Colombia’s borders.
“If it’s to launch surveillance
flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless
hostility by Colombia against its neighbors,” Pardo said, although one
of the Colombian officials said the agreement will specify that U.S.
flights won’t cross Colombia’s borders without permission from affected
It is not clear what other restrictions would be
placed under a new bases agreement on U.S. military aircraft, warships
or troops. Putting more Americans on the ground would raise the risk of
casualties, although Colombia’s leftist rebels – chiefly funded through
cocaine trafficking – have no record of attacking Americans in the
About 600 U.S. service personnel and civilian
contractors already work in Colombia, according to the most recent
figures available. Advisers are attached to Colombian army divisions,
have their own offices at armed forces headquarters and have trained
thousands of Colombian troops since 2000.
Under U.S. law, the
number of Department of Defense employees in Colombia cannot exceed 800
while the number of military contractors cannot top 600.
number would not change under the draft accord, the senior Colombian
officials said. Nor, they said, would U.S. troops lose their immunity
from criminal prosecution.
While drug interdiction is the
chief U.S. goal, some worry that bringing in more Americans will lead
to the U.S. taking sides in a conflict involving Colombia’s military,
rebels and private militias over land and cocaine that has led to
hundreds of extra-judicial killings of civilians over the years.
U.S. could be pushing Colombia to negotiate a solution with the leftist
rebels, said John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S.-based Fellowship of
Reconciliation. Instead, “this is an indicator that the United States
is going to be supporting a military approach.”