(IPS) – Military and diplomatic sources see a link between the Manta air base, operated by the United States in Ecuadorean territory, and this month’s bombing raid by Colombia on a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador.
The U.S. air force was granted a 10-year concession in 1999 to use the base, located in the port city of Manta on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast, in its counter-drug trafficking activities in the region.
A high-level Ecuadorean military officer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IPS that "a large proportion of senior officers" in Ecuador share "the conviction that the United States was an accomplice in the attack" launched Mar. 1 by the Colombian military on a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp in Ecuador, near the Colombian border.
FARC’s international spokesman Raúl Reyes and 24 other people were killed in the bombing raid, which prompted Quito to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia, although ties were restored several days later.
"Since Plan Colombia was launched in 2000, a strategic alliance between the United States and Colombia has taken shape, first to combat the insurgents and later to involve neighbouring countries in that war," said the officer. "What is happening today is a consequence of that."
Plan Colombia is a U.S.-financed and supported counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy carried out by Bogotá.
The information gathered by IPS from military and diplomatic sources indicates that the Manta air base played a role in locating, and carrying out reconnaissance of, the FARC camp in Ecuador.
Ecuadorean Defence Minister Wellington Sandoval said there should be an investigation of whether the Manta air base was used for the attack on the rebel camp in Ecuador. According to the agreement signed by Washington and Quito, it is the Ecuadorean armed forces that should carry out such a probe.
The Manta air base lease clearly stipulates that the base can only be used for counter-narcotics operations.
Sandoval said he cannot provide any information until an investigation has been conducted.
The military source who spoke to IPS said that what should be verified "above all are the flights from the base in the 20 days prior to the bombing, who was on them, the routes they took, and what they were investigating. This data should be complemented by other inquiries and information."
On Mar. 13, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said she had had "a conversation with (U.S.) Ambassador Linda Jewell who ensured us that the planes (at the base) were not involved in any way" in the bombing of the FARC camp.
But the military source said that "the technology used, first to locate the target, in other words the camp, and later to attack it, was from the United States."
Sandoval declared that "equipment that the Latin American armed forces do not have" was used in the Mar. 1 bombing.
"They dropped around five ‘smart bombs’," the kind used by the United States in the First Gulf War (1991), "with impressive precision and a margin of error of just one metre, at night, from planes travelling at high speeds," said the minister.
The military source said that "an attack with smart bombs requires pilots who have experience in such operations, which means U.S. pilots. That’s why I think they did the job and later told the Colombians ‘now go in and find the bodies’, which is when Colombian helicopters and troops showed up" at the site of the raid.
According to the official version of events that the Colombian government gave an Organisation of American States (OAS) fact-finding commission that visited both countries, 10 "conventional" bombs were dropped from five Brazilian-made Super Tucano aircraft and three U.S.-made A-37 planes.
The A-37s dropped bombs guided by GPS (Global Positioning System) and the five Super Tucanos have the technological means to launch bombs at targets with a five-metre margin of error, said the OAS delegation’s report.
But according to the sources who spoke to IPS, the U.S. role in the incident could have been even greater.
The military officer said the bombing raid in Ecuadorean air space was actually led by "U.S. pilots, possibly from DynCorp," a U.S.-based private military contractor that has contracts under Plan Colombia.
The aircraft took off from the Tres Esquinas air base in the southern Colombian department of Caquetá, said the source.
"The planes used to fumigate coca crops or to attack the guerrillas are piloted by serving members of the U.S. military or (former) military men at the service of companies like DynCorp," said the officer.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on Mar. 15 that his government would not allow "any foreign soldier, whether regular or irregular, to affect the soil of our fatherland. That is why there will be no more foreign bases after 2009."
U.S. usage rights for Manta expire on Nov. 12, 2009.
A committee in the Constituent Assembly that is rewriting the Ecuadorean constitution approved the chapter on territorial sovereignty on Mar. 17.
One of the articles states that "Ecuador is a territory of peace. The establishment of foreign military bases, or foreign installations for military purposes, is not permitted. National military bases cannot be leased to foreign security forces."
In its refusal to renew the air base lease, Ecuador can argue "many causes: direct or indirect participation (by U.S. forces from Manta) in the bombing; negligence for failure to detect the FARC camp with their technology, first of all, and the attack, in second place; and, in case they did detect the camp and the raid, for failing to inform authorities in the partner country, Ecuador," said a diplomatic source who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity.
Another reason that could be set forth is the direct support that the U.S. Southern Command, under which the U.S. armed forces at the Manta air base operate, has provided the Colombian military.
Admiral James Stavridis, the commander of the Southern Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Mar. 6 that he was monitoring the movement of Ecuadorean and Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border.
Stavridis said that with continuous U.S. support, Colombia has won "hard-fought successes" in the armed conflict. He added that "this key strategic ally" was making irreversible progress towards peace and against "terrorism."
He also told the Senate Committee that the FARC had been reduced from 17,500 guerrillas in 2002 to around 9,000 today.
In July 2001, retired colonel Fausto Cobo, former director of the Ecuadorean army’s Escuela de Guerra (war collage), had told IPS that "Manta, for the purposes of Plan Colombia," is a "U.S. aircraft carrier, on land."
By April 2001, when work began on the expansion of the Manta air strip, an average of 100 troops were taking part in up to three missions a day in F-3 reconnaissance planes.
A diplomatic source from the United States told Britain’s Financial Times at the time that by October the number would go up by 200, and by 200 more within the following few months.
After the expansion of the air strip, bigger, more sophisticated aircraft began to be used for reconnaissance missions.
Manta is one of the four "forward operating locations" (FOLs), along with Curaçao, Aruba and El Salvador, that make up the U.S. network of counter-narcotics bases in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In August 2006, the Expreso de Guayaquil newspaper reported that Colombian pilots were operating alongside Ecuadorean pilots on flights out of the Manta air base.
The commander of an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) squadron based out of Manta, Rich Boyd, told the Guayaquil newspaper that one of the AWACS aircraft was operated by a Colombian air force officer.
But Boyd said that each country’s sensitive and confidential information is protected, because the Colombian officer exits the cockpit when the plane is in Ecuadorean air space, and the Ecuadorean pilot leaves when the plane overflies Colombia.
According to Boyd, three of the U.S. military’s 27 AWACS were at the Manta base. Each one has a price tag of one billion dollars — nearly double the entire 2005 budget of the Ecuadorean air force.