A heightened US military presence in Colombia?

BOGOTA — The United States is looking to increase its military presence in Colombia, with a potential $46 million investment in an air base about 120 miles north of Bogota. The request is in the Pentagon’s 2010 budget, which went to Congress last month.

Citing ongoing negotiations, Colombian and American officials won't elaborate on what heightened U.S. military support for the Palanquero air base would actually mean for both countries. All an official at Colombia's Defense Ministry would say is that, "what will happen is a strengthening of cooperation between the United States with Colombia."

The request comes as the contract that allowed the United States to house American personnel and carry out anti-narcotics missions from a base in Manta, Ecuador, is set to expire in November. Ecuador will not renew the 10-year contract.

American and Colombian officials insist that Palanquero is not intended to replace Manta. The Manta base is one of four military facilities the United States has consistent access to in Latin America (the others are in El Salvador, Aruba and Curacao) and is limited to anti-narcotics missions. But the Palanquero proposal is for a “cooperative security location,” which could also include counterterrorism activities.

There are other signs of broadening U.S. military objectives in the region. In an e-mail statement, a state department official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota said the budget request was made “in anticipation of increased cooperation with Colombia on our shared goals of combating narcotics traffickers and terrorist organizations.”

The $46 million was requested “in the event that infrastructure improvements are required to bring Palanquero up to U.S. standards for aircraft operations,” the state department official wrote.

In addition, according to the 2010 budget, the Defense Department seeks “access agreements for contingency operations, logistics and training in Central and South America." And according to an Airlift Military Command planning document, the U.S. Southern Command is seeking access to a base until 2025 with “air mobility reach on the South American continent.” The same document pointed to the ability of C-17 planes leaving Palanquero as capable of covering half the continent without refueling.

Colombia — which is at the heart of the U.S. "war on drugs" and is one of America’s strongest allies in the region — appears a natural choice from which to stage American military operations.

As is the Palanquero air base: With hangers that can hold more than 100 planes, housing for more than 2,000 people, restaurants, a theater, casino and hospital, it is one of the country’s largest and most well equipped bases.

Colombia is long accustomed to receiving U.S. military assistance, but rumors of a more established presence with a base has sparked concern. “I do not agree with an American base in Colombia,” Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and current presidential candidate, told GlobalPost. “But I am in agreement with a collaborative arrangement between Colombia and the United States that Colombia defines.”

With details of the negotiations under wraps, the government seems focused on dismissing concerns that the U.S. investment would wrest control from Colombian hands.

“An American base you will not see,” said a Colombian Defense Ministry official. “The Palanquero base — a Colombian base — as it is now, is how it will remain. There will be no change.”

But some human rights advocates object to American investments in Palanquero. Further support for the military will “put civilians at greater risk than before,” said John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S. human rights organization Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Current negotiations for increased military support come at a time when Colombia’s armed forces are under scrutiny, following revelations that more than 1,500 civilians have allegedly been killed by armed forces over the last decade, and have often been framed as guerrillas fallen in combat.

“The human rights record of the Colombian Armed Forces is so terrible,” said Lindsay-Poland, “that we think there’s no justification for giving them any assistance.”

And some critics worry that an increased American military presence in the region could exacerbate the already tense U.S. relationship with neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador. Others dismiss such concerns, saying the U.S. presence would only serve to bolster Colombian operations.

"This does not signify a security threat for any neighboring countries; this is not a spy base,” said Aflredo Rangel, a military analyst with the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogota. Rangel said that Colombians would view increased American assistance for Colombian bases as “absolutely necessary in the struggle to recuperate security.”

According to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Defense Ministry sources said Colombia, through the Palanquero negotiations, was trying to gain more military aid from the United States. Colombia has received some $6 billion from the U.S. since 2000, mostly in military aid.

The Colombian air force unit based at Palanquero was barred from receiving U.S. military aid in 2003 following the 1998 bombing of 18 civilians in the northeastern town of Santo Domingo. The U.S. lifted the suspensions last year when Colombian courts held the pilots responsible for the bombing, an e-mail from a State Department official explained.

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