Under the auspices of the drug war, the United States is returning to its historical pattern of using Central America and the Caribbean for its own military and strategic purposes.
Even as a growing chorus of voices throughout Latin America argue that military responses to drug trafficking are ineffective against the narcotics trade and exacerbate existing human rights abuses and official corruption, the U.S. military presence in the region is growing.
U.S. military construction in Central and South America has more than doubled in the last two years, while a U.S. buildup on military bases in Colombia continues, despite a Colombian court ruling last summer that struck down an agreement for U.S. use of the bases.
Construction of military facilities is slated for this summer in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Belize, funded from an account for “counter-narco-terrorism” operated by the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), the Pentagon’s operations arm for Latin America, according to the Army Corps on Engineers plans. But the biggest Pentagon investments are in Panama and at the U.S. air base in Soto Cano, Honduras. [see interactive map for details]
The surge in U.S. military investment in the region parallels statements by SouthCom commander Douglas Fraser that the triangle formed by Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “is possibly the most violent place on Earth today.”
Congress approved a $25 million expansion of barracks for enlisted troops at the U.S. base in Soto Cano, Honduras, located 50 miles north of the capital in Tegucigalpa. The base houses about 500 U.S. troops, as well as support personnel, and served as a way-station for the aircraft that whisked President Manuel Zelaya out of Honduras during the June 2009 military coup, according to Zelaya and a leaked State Department cable. Zelaya had proposed making the base intro a commercial airport in 2008. Now, a new operating center for U.S. Special Forces troops is being built on the base.
The U.S. has also funded military base construction at Caratasca on the Atlantic Coast, which is described in Pentagon contracts as a “forward operating location,” and in April disclosed another base that is being built on Guanaja Island, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, which will be a counter-narco-terrorism operations center and barracks. The amount of Pentagon contracts for activities in Honduras signed in the six months after the coup ($19.2 million) was more than double the amount from the same period two years earlier.
The Pentagon is also constructing bases, especially naval bases, elsewhere along the Central American coast, and conducting extensive joint military exercises and training in the region. Even in El Salvador, where center-left Mauricio Funes is president, the United States will lead a massive Special Forces exercise in June, with the participation of troops from 25 nations. The Pentagon is also designing and building a $665,000 “shoot house” for U.S. Special Forces troops in El Salvador, to be completed in August.
In Guatemala, the United States last year conducted training and renovated barracks for the infamous Kaibiles special forces units, which have a base in the remote Petén department. The participation of Kaibiles in Guatemala’s attempted genocide was well documented, and more recently former Kaibilies were reported to have worked with the Zetas in Mexico, former soldiers who serve drug cartels as hired killers.
U.S. construction of a base does not necessarily mean that the United States will have title to the base or keep personnel there. But it is an intelligence asset to know in detail another nation’s military base, and it contributes to “interoperability” —that is, integration—of armed forces.
Although the Panama Canal Treaties required closure of U.S. bases in that nation in 1999, the Pentagon has had an increasing presence in Panama in the last decade, as indicated by more than 700 contracts signed by Defense Department agencies for projects there since 1999. These include the construction of five different military bases on Panama’s coasts. [see map]
In April, Panama announced the establishment on a former U.S. military base of the Regional Security Operations Center, which will host military troops from the rest of Central America and the Dominican Republic and be linked to a Southern Command surveillance base in Florida. The center echoes an unsuccessful 1990s proposal to establish a “Multinational Counternarcotics Center” on U.S. bases on the canal, as a way to maintain a U.S. military presence there. Panama hasn’t yet disclosed if the new center will include a U.S. presence.
In June, Central American leaders will gather in Guatemala, where the United States, the Inter-American Development Bank, and other nations will be urged to pitch in nearly a billion dollars to support a largely military regional security plan. The United States has committed $200 million as part of its own Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), not including Pentagon funds. Yet “officials from nearly every Central American nation maintain that the region was not sufficiently involved in the formulation of …CARSI,” the Congressional Research Service reported in March.
Cycles of U.S. Military Presence, Retreat and Advance
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the United States frequently intervened militarily in Central America and the Caribbean, it did so primarily from the sea, using gunboats to impose its will during a period when it lacked fixed military bases in the region. The installations it established were often coaling stations to supply its naval power. That changed with the establishment of bases in Panama, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in the early twentieth century and World War II. Panama became the regional hub.
In the 1950s, the United States built up the Panama National Guard, which morphed into a more nationalistic and militarized force in the 1960s and 70s. In the wake of the 1989 U.S. invasion that dismantled Panama’s armed forces, the country constitutionally abolished the military.
The implementation of the Panama Canal Treaties in 1999, the expulsion of the U.S. military from Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003 and from Ecuador in 2009, the anti-imperialist influences on many regional governments, and the rise of Brazil and China as superpower players in the hemisphere, have placed U.S. military activities in Latin America on a more defensive footing.
Most of the military bases being constructed in Central America are naval bases, while the 2008 activation of the Fourth Fleet to deploy in Latin America has increased the tempo of naval exercises. The United States military, again, is coming mostly from the sea.
The projects bankrolled by the Pentagon for Panama include the use of drones in Panama by Stark Aerospace, a division of Israel Defense Industries, as well as an upgrade to firing ranges. Stark is a small firm based in Mississippi whose primary business is producing drones, including both unarmed surveillance vehicles and an armed “Hunter” drone that has been used for bombing missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The firing ranges being upgraded became a thorn in canal treaty implementation in the late 1990s because of the tens of thousands of explosives left behind on live fire areas on the banks of the canal.
Plan Colombia, Continued
The U.S. military buildup in Central America runs parallel to similar developments in Colombia. There, the United States and Colombia signed an agreement in October 2009 that would have given the United States military use of seven bases in Colombia for ten years.
Last August, Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck down the agreement, because it was never submitted for Congressional approval or judicial review. Yet, even after the agreement was declared “non-existent” by Colombia’s highest court, the Pentagon initiated unprecedented amounts of new construction on bases in Colombia, including for an “Advanced Operations Base” for U.S. special forces.
U.S. military agencies in September 2010 signed contracts for construction worth nearly $5 million at three bases, according to official U.S. documents. U.S. military contracts for Tolemaida in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, were larger than the four previous years combined.
The contracts included two for an “Advanced Operations Base” for the U.S. Southern Command special operations unit in Tolemaida, a training base located south of Bogota. The special operations unit, known as SOCSOUTH, has as its mission “the use of small units in direct or indirect military actions that are focused on strategic or operational objectives,” including “provid[ing] an immediately deployable theater crisis response force.”
“It is a flagrant violation of sovereignty,” according to former Constitutional Court magistrate Alfredo Beltrán Sierra. “Remember that the government already tried to justify the establishment of U.S. troops with a disguised agreement that the Court finally overturned,” he said.
The base agreement also provoked strong regional opposition in 2009 after Pentagon planning and budget documents referred to “anti-U.S. governments” and the use of “full spectrum operations” in the region, indicating that the Pentagon seeks to project military power in South America. The construction now of a U.S. “advanced operations base” in Colombia raises similar concerns.
Besides the new contracts naming military bases, there were also military contracts for $2.5 million in construction at unnamed locations in Colombia signed in September. Another military construction contract described as being for “Talemaida Avaition” [sic] for $5.5 million was signed in October 2009, just days before the United States and Colombia signed the base agreement. Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) obtained the contract information from a public website that posts federal contract information, including where the contracts will be carried out.
There is a growing chorus of voices, including former Latin American presidents, as well as Mexicans fed up with the war paradigm, who assert that military responses to drug traffickers are only making the problem worse. The question is, how will civil society in Latin America and the United States respond to the growing U.S. military buildup?
John Lindsay-Poland is research and advocacy director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke).
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