ILOPANGO, El Salvador — In the 1990s, the U.S. presence in Central America faded like the paint that demonstrators had sprayed on walls during the previous decade: "Yankee Go Home."
The Cold War ended; the leftist guerrillas that Americans had helped fight signed peace agreements and turned themselves into political parties. The isthmus was no longer of much military interest.
Now the Yankees are back. In what critics call a militarization of the drug war, U.S. soldiers and sailors are again appearing across Central America:
* Costa Ricans are boarding U.S. Coast Guard cutters to patrol their own territorial waters.
* Guatemalans are catching rides on American helicopters to swoop down on cocaine caravans detected by U.S. intelligence.
* In El Salvador, the legislature voted Thursday to let U.S. pilots fly anti-drug spy planes out of the Comalapa air base.
* Even Nicaragua, whose armed forces were closely affiliated with the Marxist Sandinista regime that the United States opposed in the 1980s, is close to signing a military anti-narcotics cooperation agreement, according to U.S. Ambassador Oliver P. Garza.
So far, the results have been as modest as the investment--just $4.3 million in military anti-drug aid last year for all of Central America. By comparison, the new U.S. anti-drug package for Colombia, which also includes military funds along with appropriations for Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, amounts to $1.3 billion.
But "the amount of money isn't as important as the revival of the military mission," cautioned William O. Walker III, chairman of the history department at Florida International University.
"Democracy isn't on sound footing in these countries," he added. "There may be unintended consequences of U.S. drug policy," such as undermining the civilian governments that have only recently taken control of their armed forces.
In contrast, proponents--from national police chiefs and presidents to top U.S. military officers and anti-narcotics officials--insist that a joint effort is needed to solve a joint problem.
An estimated 59% of the cocaine bound for the United States--300 to 400 tons a year--is sent by land or sea through these tiny countries, which are ill equipped to stop the trade. In addition, law enforcement officials have in recent months found heroin tucked into the cocaine shipments.
U.S. officials want to intercept the illegal drugs before they get to Mexico, an easy route into the United States. Central American officials hope to halt the crack epidemic that has spread through countries along the route from Colombia to the United States.
As one U.S. Defense Department employee posted in Central America explained: "It's the difference between having a dog walk across your yard to poop at the neighbor's house and when the dog decides to poop in your yard. Then you want to stop it."
The Pacific Seen as Key Trafficking Route
Anti-narcotics officials believe that drugs are increasingly being transported on speedboats across the Pacific, far offshore, where only sophisticated tracking devices can detect the vessels and helicopters based on ships are needed to intercept them.
The U.S. military is offering Central American countries the use of such equipment and trained people to operate it.
"There is a clearly defined division of labor," said Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for American military concerns in Latin America. "It is apparent that the U.S. role is one of support. The local authorities do the hard part: confronting, arresting and confiscating."
Wilhelm made the remarks a few hours after kicking off "Maya-Jaguar," a U.S.-Guatemalan anti-drug exercise that began in early June. The United States spent $1 million to lend Guatemala four helicopters, the Navy coastal patrol boat Chinook and 85 soldiers and sailors to operate them.
During a similar operation last year, Guatemalan police received information from the United States that allowed them to make the largest land seizure of cocaine in Central American history. They stopped three tractor-trailer rigs on the Pan American Highway, the isthmus' main thoroughfare, carrying 2.5 tons of cocaine.
This year the results of the joint effort were less impressive. Unlike his predecessor, President Alfonso Portillo asked the Guatemalan Congress for permission to bring in the U.S. troops--and the ensuing publicity might have had a chilling effect on drug activity for the duration of the exercise.
The annual exercise is part of a regional program called "Central Skies," the cornerstone of the joint anti-drug efforts.
The supporting cast of Central Skies is "Joint Task Force Bravo," which shares the Enrique Soto Cano air base near Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, with the Honduran Military Academy. Established in 1983 to support the region's right-wing governments and the counterrevolutionaries who fought Nicaragua's Sandinista government, the task force at one time was assigned 2,000 troops.