Pubdate: Wed, 26 Apr 2000
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
Contact:  P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378
Author: Lisa J. Adams, Associated Press


FORMER HOWARD AIR FORCE BASE, Panama (AP) Buzzards are the only thing 
taking off and landing these days on Howard Air Force Base's deserted runway.

Counternarcotics surveillance flights a key element of U.S. efforts to curb 
the flow of cocaine and heroin from South America ceased last year, when 
the base was turned over to Panama along with other Panama Canal operations.

That has alarmed some U.S. and Latin American officials, who argued that 
the Pacific base is an irreplaceable weapon in the war on drugs.

Both U.S. authorities and drug experts say that in the long run, operations 
launched to take the place of Howard will actually provide equal, if not 
better coverage than what was in place before.

But it will take time for the new facilities to get fully up and running. 
In the meantime, "This has opened up a new avenue for the Colombian 
traffickers and their guerrilla allies to ship drugs," said Bruce Bagley, 
professor of international studies at the University of Miami.

"There has been a major upsurge in small aircraft leaving Colombia and in 
heroin and cocaine shipments leaving the country," he said.

Colombian Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Ramirez said in February that 
since Howard's drug operations shut down last May, authorities have seen an 
increase in drug trafficking flights out of the country, and the Pacific 
has been left totally unprotected by radar.

Colombian officials hope to compensate in part with helicopters and 
counter-drug training that would result from a proposed $1.6 billion U.S. 
aid package now before Congress.

"Obviously, there's been some degradation of coverage, but confirming what 
windows are left unlocked for the burglar is not a good idea," said Stephen 
Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, the warfighting command 
with responsibility for Central and South America.

Lucas said once other airfields being used as replacements for Howard are 
fully operational, that will change.

Gen. Charles Wilhelm, the ranking U.S. military officer for Latin America, 
has testified that once all the new staging areas are ready, surveillance 
will be 110 percent of what it was when Howard was the base of operations.

Panamanian officials, meanwhile, say Howard's closure hasn't had any effect 
on drug-fighting efforts on the isthmus.

"What enables us to investigate the large drug-trafficking networks are the 
civilian authorities who do this type of work," said anti-drug prosecutor 
Rosendo Miranda. "Those authorities remain in the country and we maintain 
the same levels and channels of communication with them."

The counterdrug operations at Howard Air Force Base which included 2,000 
surveillance flights a year are now being carried out by U.S. Air Force 
aircraft using what the Pentagon calls "forward operating locations" at 
airfields on Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles north of 
Venezuela, and in Manta, Ecuador.

Officials also are negotiating for another location in an undisclosed 
country in Central America. The three current airfields all have been 
activated since Howard closed, but won't be operating at full capacity 
until runway improvements are completed at Manta and airplane parking areas 
are built on Curacao and Aruba, Lucas said.

Some of the funding for the Manta improvements is still tied up in 
Congress, while negotiations are ongoing for the fourth location, Lucas said.

Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at 
Florida International University, said while the airfields ultimately will 
provide better coverage than Howard in the long run, they also could double 
or triple the cost of the drug war.

"You basically had to construct these other bases, negotiate with three 
countries, put in a lot of resources," he said.

Lucas says the airfields will, in fact, be much more economical to run than 
Howard, a 5,290-acre complex that was "a small city in itself."

"The electric bill alone was $1 million a month," he said. Startup and 
improvement costs for the current airstrips for fiscal years 2000 and 2001 
are estimated at $122 million, and operating costs for all of them, 
including the one still under negotiation, are anticipated to average $14 
million to $18 million a year, Lucas said.

That is compared to the $75.8 million a year it cost to operate Howard in 
its last full year, Lucas said.

Since the current airstrips began operating, there have been "significant 
busts" both in the Caribbean and western Pacific, Lucas said. In addition, 
the United States continues to run anti-drug flights out of Puerto Rico, 
Guantanamo Bay, and Honduras.

"There's always what we call the balloon effect: When you squeeze one part 
of the balloon, the traffickers go to another," he said. "Everything you do 
they have a counteraction to it."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart