MANTA, ECUADOR -- The United States is battling a dangerous new front in its South American drug war -- just as a protege of anti-American leader Hugo Chavez comes to power in Ecuador vowing to shut down a U.S. base dedicated to narcotics surveillance.
Officials have expressed growing concern that this Andean nation is being "Colombianized," illustrated by record cocaine seizures in the last two years, the destruction of a major cocaine-processing lab and a recent gangland-style killing.
In recent months, U.S. and Ecuadorean forces have collaborated in the drug fight. But with today's inauguration of leftist President Rafael Correa, some U.S. officials worry the cooperation might be greatly curtailed.
Correa has promised to pursue a socialist agenda similar to that of his political mentor, Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Correa is the fifth left-leaning leader elected in Latin America in a little more than a year.
During his campaign, Correa promised that he would not renew the U.S. military's lease on the Manta air base, where eight drug surveillance planes have been based since 2000.
He said the departure of the U.S. aircraft after the lease expired in 2009 would affirm national sovereignty and open the way for Manta to become an international airport.
The presence of the U.S. planes rankles many Ecuadoreans, who think America's main goal is not to fight drugs but to keep a close eye on leftist guerrillas in Colombia.
Ecuador has tried to keep its distance from its neighbor's 40-year civil war and Plan Colombia, a $4-billion antidrug and antiterrorism program funded by the United States, fearing the Andean nation could be drawn into the conflict.
"Our leaders never got approval to permit the planes in the first place from the National Assembly or the Supreme Court, which they were required to do by law," said Luis Saavedra, president of the Human Rights Advisory Foundation in Quito, the capital. "This could make Manta a military target."
Base Plays an Integral Role
U.S. officials said that the Manta base played a valuable role in efforts to control drug shipments and that ending the American military presence would make Ecuador more attractive to Colombian traffickers.
"There's concern for all the right reasons," one top U.S. law enforcement official said last month.
Ecuadorean police investigators, U.S. pilots and both countries' navies, working together, seized 33 tons of cocaine in Ecuadorean territory and on vessels in 2006, up from a "small fraction" of that amount in 2003, said a U.S. State Department official responsible for antidrug efforts in Ecuador.
No one knows how much of the estimated 750 tons of cocaine produced annually in Colombia is shipped through Ecuador. But applying one rule of thumb, the 33 tons seized last year could represent one-third of all the cocaine that passed through the country. That would work out to 100 tons, or about 13% of Colombia's cocaine.
The eight surveillance planes were key to the seizures, U.S. officials said, but their importance extends beyond Ecuador. Flights from the Manta air base played a part in 60% of drug interdictions by U.S. and allied fleets in the eastern Pacific last year, said the U.S. military's Southern Command in Miami.
Increased levels of drug trafficking in Ecuador are illustrated by the seizures in the eastern Pacific of Ecuadorean boats packed with cocaine.
They have outnumbered Colombian boats 4 to 1, said the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she did not have permission to comment on the record. The amount of cocaine on the boats ranged from 2 to 7 tons, officials said.
"Seizure of Ecuadorean 'mother' boats were unheard of a few years ago," said the State Department official, referring to large boats.
Going Through Ecuador
The increase is due to vigilance at Colombia's ports and in its airspace, also a result of the U.S. surveillance planes based in Ecuador, officials say.
The effort has forced drug traffickers to send an increasing share of Colombia's cocaine through Ecuador en route to the North American market.
Boats typically travel as far as 2,000 miles off Ecuador, past the Galapagos Islands, before transferring the cocaine to high-speed boats that complete the smuggling trips to Mexico and Central America, guided by global positioning systems and refueled by makeshift tankers.
"Boats are pushing farther and farther out," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Javier Delucca, the ranking U.S. military officer in Ecuador.
Numerous Colombian drug traffickers have moved to Ecuador in recent years, easily fitting in with the estimated 300,000 Colombians who have sought refuge from the civil war in the last decade.
Antidrug officials say many of the smugglers have clustered around Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a town about 50 miles west of Quito that has become a sort of drug trafficking nerve center.
"There are colonies of refugee and undocumented Colombians in every corner of the country now, mostly dedicated to legal activities. But some are criminals who come here to break the law," Gen. Bolivar Cisneros Galarza, a top commander in Ecuador's anti-narcotics police, said in a telephone interview.
Correa has made no mention of ending U.S.-Ecuadorean cooperation in the drug fight, but some U.S. officials worry that he might follow Chavez's lead and do just that.
U.S. officials in Ecuador, including Ambassador Linda Jewell, have said they will try to persuade Correa to change his mind about the Manta base. The U.S. government is offering to help develop the base as a bigger commercial airport and pay for another runway -- if Correa lets the U.S. planes stay.
The U.S. Embassy has encouraged officials and businesses in Manta to tout the base's economic importance, with its 450 local jobs and $7 million in annual spending.
But the chances of changing Correa's mind appear slim, largely because he campaigned so hard on the issue and because of the anti-U.S. tide in the region.
But if he were to change his mind, the decision could be based on self-interest, and that's the tack U.S. officials are taking. Losing the drug surveillance flights, which moved to Ecuador in January 2000 from bases in the Panama Canal Zone, might make his country more vulnerable to traffickers and organized crime.
'That's A Scary Thing'
Those fears were sparked by the raid of a cocaine-processing lab in El Oro province near the city of Guayaquil last fall. U.S. and Ecuadorean officials said it was the biggest lab seized in that country and was capable of producing as much as 4 tons of cocaine a month.
"In the past, Ecuadorean cocaine-processing labs were Colombian border spillover situations or hidden somewhere deep in the jungle," said a U.S. anti-narcotics official.
"This one was located right along the coast and was big enough to process 4 tons of Peruvian and Colombia base a month. That's a scary thing."
Also worrisome to many was the gangland-style slaying in December of Blanca Cando, the secretary to Superior Court Judge Pavlova Guerra, who has presided over money-laundering cases involving suspected drug traffickers. Cando was gunned down while having coffee with friends.
For some, the killing was too reminiscent of the deadly efforts to intimidate judges in Colombia.
"Hit the low-level functionary so that the higher-level boss gets the message to back off," one U.S. government official here said.
Cisneros, the police commander, declined to comment on the Manta lease issue but said that U.S.-Ecuadorean cooperation was "excellent" and that the eight U.S. aircraft were a positive factor in the nation's drug fight.
U.S. officials said losing the lease on the base, apart from hurting Ecuador's antidrug efforts, would also be a strategic setback for the United States. Drug traffickers' routes already test the surveillance aircraft's range, and the planes' capabilities would probably be curtailed by their having to be relocated.
"The base here is a terribly important asset in the war on drugs," said Delucca, the U.S. Air Force officer. "The geographical position of Manta is invaluable."
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