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Yanquis Return to El Salvador
by Father Dean Brackley

Comalapa airport
Compala International Airport
The United States (Yanquis) military presence is on the rise again in El Salvador. On July 6, 2000, the Salvadoran National Assembly approved the establishment of a U.S. anti-drug trafficking base at the international airport in Comalapa. The Salvadoran and U.S. governments had signed an agreement for the base on March 31, without informing the National Assembly or the press. Shortly before the July 6 vote, U.S. military helicopters began transporting El Salvador's police on their rounds in the countryside. Both measures are part of a growing involvement of the U.S. Defense Department with the Salvadoran military and police.

The FMLN, the party with the largest contingent in the Assembly, voted against the base at Comalapa. While the measure passed by a simple majority, the Salvadoran Constitution requires a three-fourths vote for agreements affecting national sovereignty. Maintaining that it is not a "treaty" and cedes no Salvadoran territory, both U.S. and Salvadoran governments argued that a simple majority was sufficient for ratification. They refuse to call the operation a military base, preferring to label it a "monitoring center." On September 4, two months after the National Assembly approved the base, the FMLN presented a formal complaint to the Salvadoran Supreme Court regarding the simple majority ratification.

El Salvador Map

The agreement for the base went into effect on August 23, with construction at the airport beginning soon after. The base agreement grants U.S. military and civilian personnel access to airport and government installations with exclusive access to designated base areas. The U.S. plans to spend $10.4 million for construction at Comalapa, and it hopes to extend the agreement, currently limited to 10 years, for a 20-year term. The terms of the agreement do not limit the number of U.S. personnel who will wear uniforms and carry arms. Neither does it limit the amount or type of arms, planes or military equipment at Comalapa. The Puerto Rico-based U.S. Naval South will run the installation, which means that land, sea and air operations will be possible.

Since the dismantling of its bases in Panama, the U.S. has been seeking alternative sites for what it calls "Forward Operating Locations" (FOLs). Both Panama and Costa Rica recently rejected a U.S. anti-narcotics base on their soil. However, the U.S. has already set up FOLs in Manta, Ecuador, and in Aruba and Curacao off the coast of Venezuela. El Salvador will now be the third corner of the triangle surrounding Colombia.

The Transnational Institute based in Amsterdam charges that the ultimate objective of the two original FOLs is to support U.S. military intervention in Columbia. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador has claimed that a State Department source stated that the FOLs are being used to monitor activities of the Colombian guerrillas.

The Salvadoran government defends the Comalapa base as necessary to combat drug-related local crime. On March 17, Mauricio Sandoval, head of the Civilian National Police (PNC), called on the National Assembly to request joint patrols and U.S. military help with "indispensable" measures for fighting crime. On the same day it authorized the Comalapa base, the Assembly approved the "Juventud Sana" program, which will permit 20 U.S. Defense Department operatives to train PNC officers. The U.S. already runs similar operations in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras.

The current U.S. budget assigns $2.2 million for combating drug trafficking through El Salvador. These funds support the new "Central Skies" program, which uses U.S. helicopters to transport the Salvadoran police around the countryside while prohibiting U.S. pilots from assisting in patrols or arrests. In Suchitoto, one of the regions affected by Central Skies missions, a resident reported that on September 15, Independence Day in Central America, "we were bothered by two A-35 bombers all morning flying low and so fast your ears hurt.... The people knew immediately they were the types flown during the war." One can only imagine how these activities affect communities around Suchitoto that were razed by helicopter attacks and aerial bombardment during the civil war.

The Salvadoran Constitution, amended by the 1992 Peace Accords, limits the Salvadoran military to the defense of national sovereignty and excludes it from internal security functions. Soon after the war ended, however, the Salvadoran army began to patrol the countryside on the grounds that crime constituted a national emergency.

Opponents of the FMLN accuse the party of protesting the Comalapa base because of their supposed links to drug traffickers and Colombian guerrillas. On the contrary, the FMLN has expressed openness to U.S. help in combating organized crime and corruption and in training the PNC. Some critics argue that recent initiatives violate principles of the Peace Accords by re-militarizing police functions. Others wonder whether a growing U.S. military presence has anything to do with significant advances by the FMLN in recent March elections.

Father Dean Brackley, an American Jesuit priest, traveled to El Salvador in early 1990 to fill the teaching position at the University of Central America left vacant by the murder of one of the Jesuits.

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