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A heightened US military presence in Colombia?

A US proposal to invest in a Colombian air base sparks debate.

Colombia's then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos receives instructions in a Tucano turboprop plane at Bogota's military airport of Catam, Dec. 14, 2006. (Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)

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.