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EL SALVADOR: LEGISLATURE RATIFIES ANTI-DRUG PACT WITH U.S.

On July 7, the Legislative Assembly ratified an anti-drug agreement negotiated with the US. The agreement has been controversial and the Assembly debate raised the fear of US troops on Salvadoran soil. The major opposition party claims the agreement violates the Constitution.

In anticipation of the turnover of Howard Air Force Base to Panama last December, the US tried to negotiate with Panama to set up a multilateral anti-narcotics base at Howard. When negotiations collapsed in 1998 (see EcoCentral, 1998-07-09), the US established smaller centers in Aruba and Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, and at Manta, Ecuador. It was unable to negotiate a center with Costa Rica and started talks with El Salvador to anchor the Central American section (see NotiCen, 2000-05-04).

The three sites already in operation are run by the US Air Force. The Salvadoran center is to be operated by the US Navy.

The ring of interdiction centers, called forward operating locations (FOLs), marks a shift in the US approach to international drug interdiction. During the past two years, President Bill Clinton's administration has taken harsh criticism from some members of Congress for failing to negotiate the Panama option. US military and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials admitted there would be a temporary weakening of drug surveillance until the new system was in place. Now, they say the system is cheaper--around US$20 million per year compared with US$75 million at Howard--and gives more effective coverage of drug-shipment routes from South America.

Loss of the Panama option also caused a shift in diplomatic thinking. An administration official said, "When we had Panama, it was a crutch for us. We could do whatever we wanted and not worry about working with other countries. This FOL prepares us for the reality in the region that there are problems we can no longer handle by ourselves."

In late March, El Salvador signed the pact, which allows US aircraft to fly drug-interdiction missions out of a FOL at the Comalapa International Airport, 45 km south of the capital. The pact also calls for US military personnel to train Salvadoran police.

US, supporters deny pact violates sovereignty

US officials said the Navy would have access only to some areas of the airport and that operations would be limited to flights interdicting specific, suspected aircraft. The Navy's job would be to pass information on to the Salvadoran government, which would have sole authority to intercept planes or boats suspected of carrying narcotics.

Opinion in the Assembly quickly separated into three groups--deputies favoring the pact, those wanting the government to clarify the pact, especially the number of US personnel it permitted, and those who opposed it as an unconstitutional violation of sovereignty.

During the debates, the Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) insisted that passage of the measure needed 63 of the Assembly's 84 votes because it was a treaty with territorial implications. Supporters of the pact said it needed only a 43-vote majority because it was an "agreement," not a treaty. In the end, the supporters prevailed and voted 49 to 31 to ratify.

President Francisco Flores tried to persuade the FMLN to vote for the pact and US Ambassador in San Salvador Anne Patterson made two trips to the Assembly to lobby FMLN deputies.

Flores said the FMLN was mistaken in suggesting that the pact violated the country's sovereignty. "No one is talking here about signing a treaty that delivers territory to anyone," said Flores. "It simply deals with the installation of a base in our country."

He probably should not have used the word "base." Ambassador Patterson was careful to call it a "control center" at the airport, using Salvadoran installations. "It is not a US military base," she said.

Patterson said the center would use two or three Navy radar-surveillance planes and about 20 US personnel. Salvadoran negotiator Bertrand Galindo said, "This is not a violation of sovereignty."

The debate brought up old concerns stemming from the US support for repressive military-dominated regimes during the armed conflict of the 1980s.

"To have a United States base here would be a provocation because our democracy is not yet mature," said FMLN deputy Blanca Flor Bonilla. She also expressed concern about the military implications of the pact.

Among opponents of the pact, the crime issue and the return of the US military raised the fear of a resurgent Salvadoran repression with US backing.

Supporters said US drug interdiction would help reduce crime because much of it is linked to drug traffickers. Recently, the government sent military patrols out to help the police fight crime, but more than 200 police have been dismissed, some of them for criminal acts.

While not opposing some form of US assistance in anti-drug efforts, the FMLN argued that the pact was too vague and did not spell out adequate protections against an expansion of US military activities. Part of the pact allows for "an exchange of troops," which opponents said could permit the occupation of Salvadoran soil by US troops. They said the wording was loose enough to allow an expansion of such an "exchange" to any area of national territory.

FMLN leader Jorge Shafik Handal asked that the agreement be renegotiated to remove elements he considered unconstitutional. After the vote, he promised to seek a ruling on its constitutionality from the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ). Aside from the territorial issue, the Constitution prohibits the government from delegating matters of public security, he said. [Sources: The Miami Herald, 04/14/00; El Diario de Hoy (El Salvador), 06/27/00, 06/28/00; The New York Times, 07/04/00; Spanish News Service EFE, 07/07/00; La Prensa Grafica (El Salvador), 04/01/00, 06/29/00, 07/07/00; Notimex, 07/09/00]
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Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Date:Jul 20, 2000
Words:961
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