In Latin America, leftist leaders evict US drug warriors
Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela push back on US operations.
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This fall, Ecuadorians voted yes to a new Constitution that calls for the closure by next year of one of the most important US operations in its war against drugs.
The US has long had a presence in Latin America to stem the northward drug flow; Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are the world's largest cocaine producers. The US still boasts strong partnerships with many countries, such as Colombia and Mexico. But in others, particularly those led by leftists who have risen in collective condemnation of Washington, leaders are increasingly severing ties.
Their push for more self-determination could represent an opportunity to improve a strategy seen by many as a failure, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia.
But Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for western hemisphere affairs, takes a dimmer view. Moves like Bolivia's expulsion of DEA agents could have an impact on US intelligence-gathering capabilities, he says, but they also appear to weaken some countries' commitment to fighting drug production. "Drug cartels and all the illicit behavior – even the damage done to the environment by drug production – is a transnational challenge that requires international cooperation," he says.
Early this month, Bolivian President Evo Morales, the nation's first indigenous leader who rose to power as head of the coca grower's federation, expelled the DEA, claiming that agents were stoking divisions in a country already violently divided over a new Constitution that seeks more state control over energy resources and more recognition for the indigenous.
"There were DEA agents who worked to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups so they could launch attacks on the lives of authorities, if not the president," Mr. Morales said last week
The DEA calls the claims baseless. "We go after drug traffickers.… We don't get involved in things outside our lane," says Garrison Courtney, spokesperson for the DEA. "These are really silly accusations."
The DEA presence in Venezuela has also been dramatically reduced in the past 18 months, according to State Department officials who characterize the reduction as evidence of Venezuela's weak support for international antinarcotics effort.
And Ecuador announced it will not renew the 10-year lease at the Manta airbase, one of the US's most significant operation zones in the region since 1999. President Rafael Correa, who promised in his campaign to close the base, calls it a matter of reciprocity. During a visit to Italy last year, he joked that if the US wanted its base, it would have to allow an Ecuadorian base in Miami.
The closure of Manta "will leave a serious gap in our abilities to monitor antinarcotics operations in the eastern Pacific," says one administration official who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Today, an average of 150 US military and civilians are stationed in Manta, and in 2007, some 1,100 counternarcotics missions were launched, says Jose Ruiz, a spokesperson at US Southern Command (Southcom) in Miami. The Manta base missions are responsible for 60 percent of interdictions in the eastern Pacific.