Manta: Transforming Ecuador Into Another Cambodia, Another Colombia

  • Ecuador should be alert to a sucking sound, advertising that it’s being pulled into the vortex of the decades-old civil war in Colombia.
  • What began as a bush airstrip has been transformed into a facility capable of accommodating Boeing 747s.
  • FOLS: Washington’s new formula for manipulating Latin American Nations.
  • Is the 300 personnel cap being respected?

The dry, dusty Ecuadorian port city of Manta is a half-hour flight from Quito over the western edge of the Andes by a jet most likely long since retired from the U.S. commercial fleet. If you sit on the south side of the aircraft, Chimborazo, a conical snow-covered volcano once thought to be the highest mountain in the world, reveals its majestic summit, undoubtedly leaving the lucky passenger breathless.

There are no moving walkways or elevators at Manta’s airport. Stepping off the flight from Quito, one gets the impression that the city is yet another one of those deceptively relaxed third-world secondary cities. But here, looks can be misleading. In fact, Manta is at the epicenter of a firestorm that is now raging for the heart and soul of Ecuador’s political system.

The Creation of the Manta Base

Thirty-five years ago the Nixon administration launched a secret campaign of intense aerial bombing in Cambodia and in doing so plunged a relatively small, neutral and peaceful country into the flaring quagmire in neighboring Vietnam. Thirty-five years later, the U.S. may again be pushing another small, neutral and peaceful nation into a comparable entanglement. Ecuador is now in the early stages of being a combatant in the seemingly intractable conflict engulfing its much larger and bellicose neighbor to the north, Colombia. Manta, Ecuador’s second largest port has become a vital, if unlikely centerpiece in what could be Washington’s strategic design for the northern Andes, and the symbol of a local struggle to thwart those goals.

In 1999, the U.S. signed what the Florida-based U.S. Southern Command calls a “lease agreement” with Ecuador to deploy up to 300 U.S. military personnel in a “forward operating location” (FOL) at Manta’s Eloy Alfaro Air Base, a combination of a scrub civilian airport and Ecuador’s most up-to-date air force facility. According to Raul Duany, spokesperson for the Southern Command, the sole purpose for the U.S. presence in Manta, which began in 1999, is to facilitate international cooperation for the aerial detection, monitoring, tracking and control of illegal narcotics activity. This entails U.S. support aircraft equipped with radar to identify small aircraft capable of landing on rump jungle strips, which are used for transporting illegal drugs over national borders. U.S. participation in the region involves detection, tracking and the confirmation of ultimate destinations so Ecuadorian authorities can take action, if need be, against the illegal trafficking. It is important to note that the FOL does not authorize U.S. personnel to conduct any operations outside of the afore-mentioned zones. Colombia, for example, now has an Air-Bridge Denial Policy, which allows its government to force down any unauthorized aircraft passing through its airspace. In recent days, several have been forced to land, one of which is reported to have been Ecuadorian.

Unlike the right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia who heavily cultivate and process drugs in the areas where they dominate, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) mainly afford protection to local drug traffickers and charge them a war tax in order to help finance their operations. This distinction conflates Washington’s vision of where the line is between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency, with Ecuador being increasingly affected by such nuances. Already, the FARC is anticipating an attack by U.S. forces in which U.S. weapon systems and personnel based in Manta will be involved. Previous penetrations have claimed the lives of a number of innocent Ecuadorian civilians. If Quito continues to cooperate with U.S. counterinsurgency initiatives, the FARC argues, Ecuador becomes fair game as a target.

Limitations on U.S. Preferences
In a telephone interview, the Southern Command’s Duany insisted that the U.S. presence in Manta rarely has risen to the prescribed limit of 300 personnel, and that it usually hovers closer to half that figure. But Professor Miguel Morán, a long-time Manta activist and founder of the anti-FOL Movimiento Tohalli, insists that the U.S. staffing level normally exceeds 300 and at times is closer to 450. As evidence, Morán points out what he calls the large numbers of U.S. military personnel found on Manta’s streets and booked into local hotels, whose combined capacity easily exceeds the agreement’s cap of 300.

Professor Morán has been teaching constitutional law at Manta’s Eloy Alfaro University for almost 30 years. He was protesting the U.S. presence at the airport even before the FOL lease agreement was, in his view, rammed down the throats of Ecuadorians. The critic takes particular offense to the FOL’s use of a facility named after Eloy Alfaro, the founder of Ecuadorian liberalism, who abhorred foreign intervention in Ecuador’s internal affairs. There is no doubt, Morán asserts, that Alfaro would have energetically opposed the Manta FOL.

The ten-year lease agreement was never ratified in Congress due to the legal interpretation that it dealt not with internal affairs, but rather, external affairs, of which the president directly executes. Morán and others insist the agreement is unconstitutional under Ecuadorian law. His thesis posits that the Ecuadorian constitution requires congressional approval of any foreign military presence in the country. To get around this obstacle, a handpicked commission was established to examine the agreement and issue a recommendation. To no one’s surprise, that body approved the agreement, which was then adopted without any formal congressional consent.

The Downside of Manta

A tribunal (lower court) then found the agreement to be unconstitutional. But Ecuador’s Supreme Court, stacked with members of the ruling conservative Social Christian Party, upheld the commission process and the FOL agreement went into effect. Years later, Morán is still angry and deeply concerned about the long-term implications of what he calls “the subversion” of the Ecuadorian constitution.

In addition to corrupting Ecuador’s body politic, local critics such as Morán, maintain that the FOL has been a disaster for the Manta community in various ways. Initial construction of the Eloy Alfaro Air Base displaced some 15,000 Manta residents. They were promised compensation for their losses, but no such funds were ever paid. In late 2001, rumors began circulating that the existing air base would merge with a nearby naval installation and Manta’s port complex to form a larger mega-facility that would, per force, oust additional thousands of people now living inside the designated military confines. In a recent telephone interview, Professor Morán insisted that this is exactly what is now happening, and that the displaced are once again not being compensated or relocated.

Dissident community leaders have charged that Ecuadorian authorities intend to create a 50-square-kilometer security zone around the Eloy Alfaro base. Once the thousands of campesinos currently living in the affected area are removed, only businesses compatible with the base will be permitted to open up shop there. Principle among these businesses, according to Professor Morán, will be shrimp farms maintained by former members of the Ecuadorian armed forces and businessmen associated with them. He also believes that DynCorp and other U.S. corporations, which provide security personnel and equipment, will become involved, and that the Interamerican Development Bank will provide some of the financing. DynCorp, a Virginia-based company, has finalized controversial contracts to provide private security and other military-related functions to the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Colombia. If these expansion plans for the base and security zone go forward, it could spell major dislocation for local food distributors, as the affected area is at present the breadbasket for that part of coastal Ecuador.

U.S. Army Responds
Southern Command’s Duany said he knew nothing about any displacement of Manta residents, and denied there was any plan afoot to expand the existing air base. “There is no expansion,” Duany said. “That is not the case.” But, he added, “If they [Ecuadorian authorities] feel they have to expand the base, that is their call. There is no need for expansion.” Duany said that he had recently visited Manta, which runs the length of an impressive bay. “Mayor Sembrano wants to expand the airport and improve infrastructure. I guess they have a bay or something. It has nothing to do with us.”

Opponents of the Manta FOL also claim the base is wreaking havoc on the local fishing fleet. Ecuadorian authorities have established a security perimeter around the Eloy Alfaro Air Base that extends out into the Pacific Ocean and encompasses what were the traditional waters for the area’s fishing fleet. Such vessels must now venture further out in order to pursue fish, and this already has resulted in the disappearance of several boats and the loss of their crews. In an atmosphere of rising tension, Ecuadorian coastal patrol boats have also fired fishing craft on after being mistaken for drug smuggling vessels. “I was not aware that this was affecting fishermen,” Raul Duany observed. If there is a hardship, we’re sympathetic, [but] that would be a concern of the Ecuadorian government.”

While the Southcom official insists that U.S. forces at Manta are engaged exclusively in the detection and monitoring of drug smuggling, he acknowledges that they will report suspected smuggling of “illegal migrants,” if they encounter such an operation. Duany dismisses critics of the Manta FOL and insists that it has been good for Manta. The U.S. has spent $70 million to improve the runway of the Eloy Alfaro base as well as to upgrade the facility, said one Administration official. This, Duany predicts, will be good for Manta’s business. Manta’s mayor echoed this idea, with his eyes lighting up when he envisioned a tourism boom facilitated by the improved airport runway. But it’s hard to imagine dry, dusty Manta with its limited beachfront amenities competing with the likes of Rio or Aruba for the favors of tourist-laden 747s.

The Effect of U.S. Presence
Unlike the arrangement in Panama, the several FOL airports secured in 1999 around the Caribbean basin would officially be run by, and remain under the control of the host countries, while allowing U.S. troops stationed at them to carry arms. Article II of the treaty initially states that the military should “explore opportunities to enhance Ecuadorian and United States interoperability in aerial counter-drug operations.” The monetary allotment to the Manta base suggests deeper U.S. involvement than originally intended, with indicators demonstrating enhanced cooperation between Ecuadorian and U.S. forces than previously achieved. This new cohesion of forces does not alleviate the level of animosity toward U.S. troops on the part of Manta’s citizenry.

Duany lauds the 160 U.S.-created jobs filled by Manta locals and subcontracted through DynCorp as evidence of the FOL’s contribution to Manta’s well-being. DynCorp has been widely criticized in Colombia for carrying out the aerial fumigation program, which is spelled out in Washington’s Plan Colombia. However, in the embattled state of Putumayo two years ago, one could see primary school students whose faces, arms and legs were covered with rashes caused by DynCorp’s fumigation. At a children’s school, located next to a coca field which had been repeatedly hit by aerial fumigation effects, the children had one wish: that the fumigation be stopped.

“I would like to see what they have to say about the positive things that have happened,” Duany said of FOL critics. “There’s been a lot more of the positive than negative.”

But Professor Morán disagrees. In pitching the FOL to local audiences, proponents of the plan promised hundreds of jobs at U.S. wages; but he claims that most of these pledges have gone unfulfilled.

One administration member affirmed that side economic benefits, like U.S. personnel spending money in downtown Manta, are helping to support the local economy. Morán argues to the contrary, that the Manta FOL has brought with it the kinds of problems often associated with a foreign military presence: alcohol, prostitution, drugs and other crimes. When asked about this, Duany again expressed sympathy for the concerns of Manta residents, and then re-assigned ultimate responsibility to Ecuadorian authorities. “Of course there are areas where accidents and incidents are going to affect operations, [but] we don’t have major problems. There have been some problems, [but] if there is an increase in nightlife and bars, that is a concern to local authorities.”

Perhaps of equal weight, no one knows whether the U.S. military presence in Manta will draw Ecuador into a deeper and potentially more tragic involvement in Colombia’s ongoing war of attrition. However, the U.S. presence is unlikely to have a calming effect on Ecuador’s already increasingly volatile political landscape. Critics would say that the disruptive presence of U.S. military personnel in Manta might well heighten regional instability. If the Manta FOL becomes associated with increasing vice, widespread civilian displacement and escalating violence along Ecuador’s border with Colombia, support for the base could easily become as great a political liability to Ecuador as support for the U.S. war in Iraq has become in many countries around the world, including in this hemisphere.