SHARE logoSHARE Update and Action Alert -- September, 2000

Posted for SHARE Foundation by Partners Across Borders, St. Cloud, MN

The US Reinforces Its Military Presence in El Salvador

What has happened…

On March 31st, the Salvadoran government agreed to allow US military use of the Comalapa International Airport for counter-narcotics surveillance. The National Assembly ratified the agreement on July 7th by a simple majority of 43.


The US was seeking four locations in Latin America to use as "Forward Operating Locations," (FOL) in other words, sites for United States military use. Before leaving for her new post as Ambassador to Colombia, former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Anne Patterson pushed the agreement through with two persuasive visits to the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and through visiting other FOL's to bolster support. The current sites include Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles and Ecuador's Manta Airbase, located off of the Pacific coast.


Under the 10-year accord, the US Navy will supply two or three P-3 planes equipped with radar but without weaponry. The airport, 45 km south of San Salvador, will serve as the location for refueling and take-off, according to the US government. Terms of the treaty are vague, offering no arms specification or the amount of personnel. The flights will track planes and watercraft that may be carrying narcotics. Only the Salvadoran military will have the ability to intercept the suspected craft. In exchange, the deal provides El Salvador with training and financial support for its National Civilian Police (PNC).

The current controversy…

In El Salvador, right wing parties have pushed this legislation through on the basis that it is an agreement rather than a treaty. An agreement is easier to pass since it requires only a simple majority instead of the ¾ majority for a treaty. The FMLN, on the other hand, calls the decision a treaty and has brought the pact to the Salvadoran Supreme Court for consideration.


Many have expressed concerns over the nature of this expansion of the war on drugs. Some feel that this type of military presence violates the1992 Peace Accords which call for demilitarization. Others regard the authorization as a result of a mangled legislative process. One of the most common fears is the expansion of US interference in domestic affairs and the instability that militarization incurs. An additional argument is that treatment and rehabilitation are the most sensible ways to win the war on drugs. . Given the US Congress' recent vote to provide aid to the Colombian government, also to combat the "war on drugs", many are worried about the growing escalation of US military presence in the region.

You will find an article below from the Religious Task Force's Report on Central America and Mexico that further fleshes out these concerns. If you would like to register your concerns about this type of US presence in El Salvador, please contact your elected officials.

Thank you.

Submitted by Meghan Curley
Intern, SHARE Foundation's Washington, D.C. Office

From: Central America/Mexico Report, Vol. 20, No. 3, July 2000
Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico

El Salvador to provide site for US counter-narcotics flights

War on drugs said to destabilize region

The governments of the United States and El Salvador signed a 10-year agreement on March 31 that would permit the use of Comalapa International Airport for US counter-narcotics flights, a key ingredient in the US military-driven "war on drugs" strategy.

The agreement completes the US search for four forward operational sites to replace its failed efforts to build a multilateral anti-drug center in Panama. Negotiations with the Panamanian government broke down in 1998 amidst a heated backlash from critics who believed the real US intent was to circumvent the 1977 Torrijos-Carter treaty that called for removal of US bases and relinquishment of US control of the Panama Canal.

The three other sites are the islands of Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles, and Ecuador's Manta Air Base located on the Pacific Coast.

In its search for a Central American location, the US entered negotiations with Costa Rica, but in the end that government proved reluctant to allow the US to establish a military presence on its territory.

The US expects to spend $10.4 million to make improvements at the Salvadoran airport and estimates that annual operating costs at the four sites will total $17 million. The permanent staff will total 10-15 people on one-to-two year assignments. Unlike the three other locations which will be run by the US Air Force, the Salvadoran site will be run by the Navy.

"We needed an operating location in Central America in order to provide adequate coverage of drug source and transit zones," said Steve Lucas, a spokesperson for the US Southern Command. "This puts the architecture in place that we feel is needed to...counter the international narcotics threat" (Miami Herald, Apr. 14).

The agreement with El Salvador must be ratified by the National Assembly where the ruling ARENA party now holds only 29 of 84 seats. The leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), the party made up of the former guerrilla groups, holds 31 seats. Sixty-three votes, or two-thirds of deputies, are required to ratify international agreements.

Jorge Schafik Handal, an FMLN leader, expressed concern that the agreement allows US military personnel to be armed and in uniform and permits them to enter other government installations. He has called the arrangement "highly damaging to national sovereignty" (NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Political & Economic Affairs, LADB, UNM, Vol. 5, No. 16, May 4).

The US has been steadily working with regional governments to reach agreements on counter-narcotics cooperation. An attempt at a regional strategy broke down in February, but the US has been negotiating bilateral arrangements.

While balking at an established US military presence in-country, the Costa Rican congress did approve an agreement allowing joint anti-drug patrols on its national territory and in its coastal waters (NotiCen). In one operation, the country's Public Security Ministry announced that US drug agents and Costa Rican police "had destroyed more than one million marijuana plants and seized 67 kg. of cocaine in the southeastern Talamanca Indigenous Reserve."

The US and Honduran governments reached agreement in March to allow joint drug interdiction operations on Honduran national territory, in its air space and coastal waters.

In April the Guatemalan Congress approved an agreement allowing joint interdiction operations. Eighty-five US troops arrived in Guatemala on May 23 to participate in the two-week-long "Operation Maya Jaguar," intended to provide training for Guatemalan police, to carry out seizures of illegal drug shipments, and to facilitate joint counter-narcotics operations.

The Nicaraguan government has also agreed to allow the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to establish an office in the country and carry out counter-narcotics operations. Nicaraguan army chief Gen. Javier Carrion has acknowledged that talks are underway to allow joint military operations.

Meanwhile, Panama has acknowledged that it will not be able to effectively fight international drug trafficking without international support. With the loss of the US Howard Air Force Base, the country is soliciting help from the US, Canada and other countries to train its own police force. But there continues to be strong resistance among political opposition groups to any approach that might create the potential for "re-establishing a US military presence in Panama" (NotiCen).

However, a loophole in the 1977 treaties may still give the US a back door into Panama. A clause added by the US Congress "after Panama had already submitted the treaties to public approval...allows the United States to intervene unilaterally if the security of the [Panama] Canal is endangered" (Latinamerica Press, Vol. 32, No. 20, May 29).   And this is where the Colombian civil war comes into play. According to LP, "The most likely trigger for the so-called Neutrality Treaty lies on the eastern border, the threshold of Colombia's civil war. That has brought under scrutiny the densely forested, sparsely populated Darién province, once ignored by virtually all outsiders except a handful of adventure tourists and naturalists."

Thousands of Colombians have crossed the border into Panama at Darién to escape the vicious fighting between guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries. Paramilitary groups have searched communities near the border to seek out, and often kill, those suspected of helping the FARC. In addition, "The border region is difficult to control, and observers say it has long been porous. For years, FARC guerrillas crossed the border to buy provisions, paying the Panamanian campesinos more for their products than any other buyer" (LP). The isolation of the area and porousness of its border with Colombia has left the province vulnerable to the encroachment of the conflict into this southernmost reach of Central America. Paramilitaries have crossed the border, "[accusing] Panamanians who sell provisions to FARC guerrillas of being collaborators. In late 1999, paramilitaries entered three communities near the border in the Kuna indigenous territory, burning one community, La Bonga."

Some Panamanians do not believe the timing was purely coincidental. Jesús Almancia, director of the Panamanian Center of Studies and Social Action (CEASPA), noted that the incursions took place just three months before the US military withdrawal from Panama was complete. Following the 1989 US invasion of Panama that ousted Gen. Manuel Noriega from power, the Panamanian military was dismantled, providing an argument for those taking the position that Panama is not capable of providing adequate security for its national territory.

Bishop Rómulo Emiliani of the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Darién told LP, "We don't want them to involve us in the war, either on the side of the guerrillas or the side of the army. It isn't our war. But little by little, they've been getting us involved. I have said publicly that in Darién there are informers, people who are paid by the guerrillas and paramilitaries, people who provide information, sell food, sell clothing, and may even sell weapons."  The bishop is urging the government to better train and equip its own police to provide adequate security along the border.

If it cannot, many fear this could provide the excuse the US needs to reassert a military presence in Panama. Fighting drug trafficking is, after all, the leading public justification for the rapidly increasing US involvement in the Colombian civil war. "Darién, which was once anonymous with backwardness and the 'savage Indian' has become a strategic area," said Almancia, who is also a Kuna. "Finally we fall within the concerns of the United States" (LP).

In its military-oriented counter-narcotics strategy, its "war on dugs," the US has found a convenient tool to expand its reach throughout the Central American isthmus into Colombia, re-cementing ties with the region's militaries. This strategy moves forward even as growing numbers of critics pronounce the war on drugs a failure.

Last November, delegates from 34 countries met in Washington DC for what was trumpeted as the "first drug summit for the Western Hemisphere." In a letter addressed to government leaders, numerous prominent Latin Americans wrote, "As you meet to develop a hemispheric drug strategy, it is time to admit that after two decades, the US war on drugs -- both in Latin America and in the United States -- is a failure" (Miami Herald, Nov. 4, 1999).

The letter, signed by three former Latin American presidents, including Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, and Belisario Betancur of Colombia -- along with religious leaders, doctors, jurists artists, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina -- said, "The escalation of a militarized drug war in Colombia and elsewhere in the Americas threatens regional stability, undermines efforts towards demilitarization and democracy and has put US arms and money into the hands of corrupt officials and military...units involved in human rights abuses."

They called for re-orienting the counter-narcotics strategy towards reducing consumption, rather than interdiction, by supporting drug treatment programs and promoting economic development to counter the economic incentive of poor people who have come to rely on the income provided by the narcotics business. Failure in the drug war has thus far only inspired the US -- the Clinton administration and the Congress -- to throw more money into the current military-oriented strategy. From the point of view of the policy's supporters, the real problem is that US counter-narcotics aid has still not been sufficient.

Given the evidence thus far, some critics wonder if the real intention behind the strategy is not to counter drugs, but to find a way to redefine, and rejustify, the historic presence of the US military throughout Latin America. In this sense, the counter-narcotics campaign has become the new anti-communist cause for the US military in the Americas.

--Margaret Swedish

From: Central America/Mexico Report, Vol. 20, No. 3, July 2000
A publication of::

Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico
3053 Fourth St., NE
Washington DC 20017
posted for SHARE by Dennis Beach, OSB
Partners Across Borders, Saint Cloud, MN
SHARE Sister-city with Tenancingo, El Salvador