Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Plan in War on Drugs Calls for US Troops to Stay in Panama Series: Pilots at Howard Air Force Base in Panama Plot Their Flight Plan. the US Is Relocating Its Southern Command from Panama to Miami, but May Keep Antidrug Operations Based in the Region., MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN - STAFF/FILE

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Plan in War on Drugs Calls for US Troops to Stay in Panama Series: Pilots at Howard Air Force Base in Panama Plot Their Flight Plan. the US Is Relocating Its Southern Command from Panama to Miami, but May Keep Antidrug Operations Based in the Region., MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN - STAFF/FILE

Article excerpt

With 100 percent of the cocaine and large quantities of other drugs entering the United States from Latin America, countries throughout the hemisphere agree that some coordinated international antinarcotics effort is necessary.

One frequently heard argument holds that since drug barons don't respect international borders, the fight against them can't either.

Which doesn't mean that Panama's proposal to turn a United States military base here into an antinarcotics center - where the US and other countries in the region would coordinate the fight against drug trafficking - is meeting with full enthusiasm.

Some Latin American countries fear the interventionist overtones of such a center. And the US, which is supposed to be leaving its remaining bases in Panama by Dec. 31, 1999, says that while it is interested in the proposal, it doesn't need to stay in Panama to fight in the regional antidrug war.

Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares, who first unveiled his proposal last year at a meeting of Latin American governments, calls for locating the center at Howard Air Force Base, near the Panama Canal. The US now has about 4,000 soldiers at the base, which is already dedicated largely to antidrug work under the US Southern Command.

A regional antidrug effort already exists and has been growing. This year the Southern Command helped coordinate Operation Laser Strike, which offered US technical assistance to the air forces of Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela in tracking and intercepting suspected drug-smuggling aircraft.

A similar operation last year, dubbed Green Clover, was termed a success by US and Latin American officials, who say stepped-up interception of drug-carrying planes is forcing traffickers to less efficient land and water routes.

But the establishment of a regional antinarcotics center - where the US would not only participate but very likely take command - is another matter. Such a project elicits old Latin American concerns of US interventionism - concerns that have been rekindled by the tough measures the US took this year against the Colombian government over drug issues, and by US efforts to stiffen its trade embargo against Cuba.

Is military response best?

Panama's proposal also comes across primarily as a military response, when most Latin American countries have long emphasized that any successful answer to the drug-supply problem will have to be economic.

"If the idea is to take advantage of the US presence {in Panama}, then the emphasis is going to be on the military end," says Enrique Obando, a South America specialist at Catholic University in Lima, Peru. "But for countries in the region including Peru, what's lacking most is the economic response," which offers alternatives to drug-plant cultivation.

Colombia's military works with the US on the surveillance of drug-smuggling corridors, but any closer association with the US would certainly run into political turbulence. …

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