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U.S. troops to El Salvador

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

U.S. armed forces, withdrawn from El Salvador under the 1992 Peace Accords, are active again in that country unders a controversial agreement that opponents say violates the peace accord..

The new arrangement derives from an agreement between the Salvadoran and U.S. governments. Signed last March with information provided to neither the National Assembly nor the press, according to Salvadoran news reports, it is intended to beef up anti-drug activities in the region.

The troops will use Comalapa, El Salvador’s principal airport 45 kilometers from San Salvador, as a “forward operating location,” according to news reports in El Salvador. Comalapa is the same airport from which Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clark, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan were kidnapped 29 years ago, to be subsequently raped and killed.

Forward operating locations are a key element in the restructuring of the U.S. military presence in Latin America after the 1997 Torrijos-Carter treaty ended U.S. control of the Panama Canal and forced the closure of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, according to experts familiar with military operations in the region. The main U.S. Southern Command bases are now in Florida and Puerto Rico, with forward operating locations in Aruba and Curaçao off Venezuela in the Netherlands Antilles, and at the Manta air base in Ecuador. These locations are all controlled by the air force. Comalapa, however, is under the Navy, and will be available for land, sea and air operations.

Drugs provide rationale

The smoldering embers of the recent civil war flared in July when the agreement was submitted to the Salvadoran National Assembly for approval, according to reports in San Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy. ARENA, the party of the oligarchy that owes its survival in that war to massive U.S. economic and military support, has fewer seats than the FMLN, the former guerrillas (29 and 31 in a House of 84). ARENA governs, however, with the backing of three minor parties.

FMLN leader Jorge Schafik Handal denounced the agreement as a violation both of the Constitution and of the Peace Accords in an El Diario story. He insisted that this is a treaty requiring approval by a three-fourths assembly vote. When the government passed it by a simple majority, the FMLN initiated a challenge in the Supreme Court.

Although the court has not yet ruled, the United States is implementing the agreement. Construction of installations, estimated to cost $10.4 million, had already begun when, on Sept. 21, the first U.S. Coast Guard plane arrived at Comalapa for 10-hour surveillance flights. The military may wear uniforms and carry arms. There is no limit on the number of U.S. personnel or the type of arms or armament they use. The estimates for annual operating costs of $17 million for the four forward operating locations assume a permanent staff at Comalapa of 10 to 15 on one-to- two-year assignments, according to press reports and information gathered by Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley of the Jesuit University of Central America in San Salvador, the capital city.

Narcotics control is a part of the U.S. strategic plan to expand its military presence in Central and South America, according to Dana Priest, writing in The Washington Post Sept. 28. “Opening the FOL [forward operating location] will make El Salvador the focal point of the counter-drug activities in Central America,” Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander-in-chief U.S. Southcom, was quoted as telling three Salvadoran generals during a briefing session. “We realize in a diplomatic sense this plan is counter-drug only. As a practical matter, all of us know this agreement will give us a superb opportunity to increase the contact with all our armed forces in a variety of ways.”

‘Trying to help them decide’

The Salvadoran constitution, using language mandated by the 1992 Peace Accords, excludes the military from internal security functions, limiting it to defending national sovereignty. Claiming, however, that crime constitutes a national emergency, the government has for several years been using the army to patrol the countryside. Now the Pentagon, following its longstanding policy of encouraging Latin American militaries to involve themselves in what are strictly police functions, is encouraging the Salvadoran army to expand activities forbidden by the constitution. “We’re trying to help them decide what role the military should have in anti-crime or anti-narcotics activities,” an embassy spokesperson, Greg Phillips, told a visiting group in June.

Under the agreement with El Salvador, the United States also provides training and financial support to El Salvador’s National Civilian Police, a unit established under the Peace Accords both to incorporate former guerrillas and to purge the militarized police force of corrupt elements. Since early July, the police are being trained by U.S. Defense Department personnel, using ships and aircraft. They are also being ferried by U.S. military helicopters to assignments in the countryside.

According to El Espectador, a major Colombian newspaper, the forward operating locations are being used to monitor the Colombian guerrillas. Tom Blickan of the Transnational Institute told NCR that the purpose is to create “a cordon sanitaire around Colombia.” Based in Amsterdam, Holland, the institute describes itself as “an international network of activist scholars concerned with analyzing and finding viable solutions to such global problems as militarism and conflict, poverty and marginalization, social injustice and environmental degradation.” It has 26 partners worldwide. They include, in the United States, the Institute for Policy Studies, Bank Information Center, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and Washington Office on Latin America.

“The United States,” Blickman said in a phone interview, “is trying to involve Colombia’s neighbors in taking part in containing the conflict in Colombia, but meets with resistance -- especially from Brazil and Venezuela. The United States is also trying to avoid a direct intervention with American troops, but is basically training and financing the Colombia army to do the job and trying to involve Colombia’s neighbors in one way or another.”

The establishment of a permanent U.S. military base at Comalapa and the introduction of U.S. personnel to train and ferry the Salvadoran National Police thus emerge as part of a growing Pentagon presence in the region. Although Costa Rica and Peru have both rejected a U.S. request to establish a forward operating location, Costa Rica recently agreed to joint anti-drug patrols both on its territory and in its coastal waters. Honduras made a similar arrangement last March, followed by Guatemala in April.

Drug war replaces Cold War

Nicaragua has authorized a U.S. drug authority office in Managua to conduct counter-narcotics operations, and it is engaged in talks with the Pentagon for joint military operations. According to experts in the region, including the Transnational Institute’s Blickman, drugs have replaced the Cold War to justify U.S. SouthCom’s continuing oversight of the region.

Margaret Swedish, editor of Central America/Mexico Report, a publication of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico, makes the same point. Critics wonder, she said, if the real intention behind the Pentagon strategy is “to find a way to redefine, and rejustify, the historic presence of the U.S. military throughout Latin America.”

MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000