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20 August 1999

US Troops Along Border with Colombia

By Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Aug 6 (IPS) - A contingent of U.S. army Southern Command Special Operations Forces is presently stationed in the Amazon jungle region of Ecuador and Peru, along the border with Colombia. Troops equipped with advanced war intelligence technology have been mobilised from the Iquitos naval base in Peru and the Coca Jungle School in Ecuador, to head off incursions by guerrillas and drug traffickers from Colombia.

The two bases, financed by the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD), began to function in March, when Ecuadorean and Peruvian army troops that participated in the now-resolved dispute over a stretch of border between the two countries were moved toward the northern frontier.

Director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, retired General Barry McCaffrey, stated last week in Ecuador that Washington would not intervene militarily in Colombia. McCaffrey thus refuted reports by the Lima daily 'La Republica' - picked up by ABC in Madrid - which maintained that the United States was promoting intervention by troops from Ecuador and Peru in Colombia's armed conflict. According to the report refuted by McCaffrey, the plan was presented a month ago to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's security adviser Vladimiro Montesinos. But Washington's ''drug czar'' did not respond when asked at a news conference whether the crash of a U.S. RC-7B military plane two weeks ago along the Ecuadorean-Colombian border was a sign of covert intervention by the United States in Colombia. In any case, the crash of the RC-7B highlighted U.S. operational capacity in the area, when in the space of a few hours 24 planes were flown in from Ecuador's Amazon region to take part in the search for the wreckage of the plane, according to the Miami Herald.

The DOD told the U.S. Congress in April that U.S. Special Operations Forces were assisting the armed forces of Ecuador and Peru with training equipment, and in joint operations and planning. The aim is to intercept communications by drug traffickers and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), said the Pentagon. Most of the U.S. troops stationed in Ecuador and Peru are pilots trained to operate radar stations and interpret images by multi-spectrum cameras - such as those taken by the RC-7B reconnaissance plane - able to identify any objective in the jungle.

General Carlos Mendoza, head of the joint chiefs of staff of Ecuador's armed forces, denied the possibility of his country participating in counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, although he said 5,000 soldiers were posted along the border to keep out the Colombian rebels.

Three weeks before the crash of the RC-7B, Ecuadorean and U.S. troops carried out Operation Sucumbiós, to eliminate two FARC training camps in Ecuadorean territory. The U.S. troops were commanded by Major Bernard Sparrow, the commander of company C of the Third Battalion of the Seventh Group of Special Forces, stationed in Panama. The battalion was recognised for its services in Colombia, according to a May publication by the U.S. army Southern Command. The last mission of the jungle commandos was the occupation of two FARC training bases in Ecuador, Colonel Ivan Borja, spokesman for Ecuador's Defence Ministry, told the Bogota daily 'El Espectador' this week.

The Iquitos naval base in Peru, presented with gunboats by U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett on Jun 14, has a permanent contingent of 33 U.S. military advisers, who rotate every 90 days, reported 'El Espectador'.  Brazilian, Colombian and Ecuadorean troops are being trained in jungle combat techniques in Coca, Ecuador, as part of a programme sponsored by the Pentagon. Troops are also being trained in naval operations in Iquitos, Peru, according to the newspaper report.

Ecuadorean Defence Minister General Jose Gallardo denied allegations that the Coca base could serve as a platform for a possible military intervention in Colombia. He said officers from many countries were training there, due to the international prestige enjoyed by the centre. ''There is nothing mysterious,'' said Gallardo. ''Officers from other countries come for training, just as Ecuadorean officers go elsewhere. This kind of exchange among the armed forces of various nations is common.''

Over the past year, the DOD scheduled 186 operations in the region, including 21 in Ecuador. In mid-1998, Ecuadorean and U.S. troops took part in joint anti-drug exercises in Ecuador's Amazon jungle region, where troops from the two countries are building an anti-drug centre. There are also plans for three additional garrisons in the Amazon jungle region and seven in other parts of the country.

In Ecuador, McCaffrey met with President Jamil Mahuad and the military brass to discuss the use of the air base in the port of Manta, where the United States has an Advanced Observation Post for Regional Anti-Drug Operations. McCaffrey stressed the strategic location of the Manta base, at a central point along the Pacific coast, for the regional anti-drug strategy based on fighting the cultivation, processing, transportation and distribution of illegal substances. He warned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Panama, to be completed by Dec 31, would weaken the control over drug trafficking activities. The United States aims to reestablish that control from Manta, and from bases in Curacao, Aruba and Honduras. The United States is getting ready to hand over the canal to Panama on Dec 31, in compliance with a treaty signed in 1977. But it has already pulled most of its troops out of the Central American country. If a deal for the United States to use the Manta base for 10 years is reached, 200 U.S. nationals would be stationed there, including Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, members of the Coast Guard and army troops.

The proposal to station U.S. forces in Manta has the approval of the Mahuad administration, which argues that it would provide backing for Ecuador's armed forces. But the plan has drawn the opposition of the indigenous movement, the Catholic Church and human rights groups. Elsie Monge, president of the Ecumenical Human Rights Commission, fears that Ecuador will be roped into continentwide strategies that ''redefine the role of national armies in the region'' based on the fight against drug trafficking and Colombia's insurgents.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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