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U.S., Colombia work on deal for air bases

The Pentagon has to find a new site for anti-drug flight operations after Ecuador declined to extend the lease at Manta.

July 16, 2009|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The United States and Colombia are poised to sign an agreement to transfer anti-drug flight operations from Ecuador to at least three Colombian air bases, a move that has drawn criticism here that it will leave the country even more dependent on Washington. Although the deal is not yet nailed down, Colombia's defense, interior and foreign ministers held a public forum in Bogota, the capital, on Wednesday to discuss details of the plan.

"We are deepening cooperation agreements that already exist in our common struggle against narco-trafficking and terrorism," said Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez, who framed the accord as a means of making the war on drugs more "efficient and stronger."

U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment, but a source who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue, said the agreement could be ready by mid-August. Colombia annually receives more than $500 million in mostly military aid under Plan Colombia, the U.S. program to combat terrorism and drugs.

The base plan has been derided by some analysts and opposition Colombian politicians, including presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, as a surrender of national sovereignty at a time when the country should be charting a more independent course.

"The Uribe government is too closely tied to the U.S.," said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor and drug expert. "The bases, even if nominally under Colombian control, will deepen Colombian dependence on the U.S."

Since 1999, the U.S. aircraft based in Manta, Ecuador, have flown an average 800 missions a year and assisted in nearly two-thirds of all cocaine seizures in the Pacific, the Pentagon says. Officials claim that the flights have helped shut down drug traffickers' "air corridor," forcing narcos to send the bulk of their cocaine by boat.

But Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa declined to extend the U.S. lease at Manta beyond this year, forcing the Pentagon to find other accommodations.

Other options for the aircraft included U.S. bases in El Salvador and Curacao, neither of which was attractive because of the added distance from cocaine shipment points in Colombia and Ecuador.

As recently as 2006, U.S. officials at the Manta base told The Times during a media tour that Colombia was not an appropriate base for the drug overflights because of security concerns for U.S. personnel and the sophisticated aircraft.

Referring to the country's largest rebel group, University of Miami's Bagley said, "They are likely to become FARC targets, sooner or later."

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