Pubdate: Wed, 23 June 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: George Gedda, Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON (AP) -- It used to cost U.S. taxpayers about $1.5 million a week
to run counter-narcotics surveillance flights out of Panama. But with that
option no longer available, the United States is using two tiny islands in
the southern Caribbean as cheaper substitutes.

Early results are encouraging, U.S. officials say.

The locations are the international airports in the Dutch dependencies of
Aruba and Curacao. Flights also are planned from an airfield in the
Ecuadorian coastal city of Manta.

Talks also are under way with the government of a Central America country,
which U.S. officials declined to identify, to provide another staging area.

The new approach became necessary because the Panama Canal treaties mandate
an end to the U.S. military presence in that country.

In their first month of operations in May, officials said, the surveillance
flights led to the forcing down of seven U.S.-bound narcotics flights from
South America -- a higher total than during the comparable period a year ago
when the flights operated from Panama.

In addition, the operations led to two large seizures of cocaine, according
to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Still, the administration faces an uphill battle in its efforts to halt
illicit drug flows, especially from Colombia.

A new report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of
Congress, says the drug trafficking threat from Colombia is increasing. Coca
cultivation has risen 50 percent since 1996 and heroin shipments to the
United States also are increasing.

Colombian drug traffickers are taking advantage of the reduced U.S. military
presence in Panama by stepping up cocaine shipments to that country, U.S.
officials said.

The main purpose of the U.S. surveillance flights is to detect and track
narcotics flights. According to normal procedures, if a suspect aircraft is
spotted over Colombia, for instance, authorities from that country are
alerted and dispatch a plane to force down the offending aircraft.

While the officials are encouraged by the project thus far, they are not
ready to declare the experiment a definitive success.

The Panama Canal treaties do not require the departure of U.S. forces until
the end of the year, but the phasing out process is well under way.

Howard Air Force Base, the starting point for 2,000 surveillance flights
annually for many years, essentially went out of business in May, although a
residual U.S. presence remains.

GOP Rep. Benjamin Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International
Relations Committee, said at a hearing in May that the air base was "the
crown jewel in our fight against drugs" and that the administration had not
done enough to compensate for losing the base.

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

Wilhelm told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee it could cost $122
million to upgrade airports at the staging areas. But he said this would be
a one-time payment compared with annual $75 million outlays at Howard.

Another advantage is that the local governments pay for security. At Howard,
this was a U.S. responsibility. There is no charge to the U.S. military for
use of the airports at the new staging areas.

Other analysts note that the facilities in Panama were used for more than
drug surveillance operations. Their mandate included search-and-rescue
operations and humanitarian relief.

Tons of supplies were flown from Panama to assist victims of Hurricane Mitch
in Nicaragua and Honduras last fall. In recent weeks, the United States shut
down an intelligence gathering facility at Galeta Island in Panama and also
Fort Sherman, which was used as a training facility for almost 50 years.

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