Monday, April 21, 2008

Ecuador’s Leader Purges Military and Moves to Expel American Base

Published: April 21, 2008

MANTA, Ecuador — Chafing at ties between American intelligence agencies and Ecuadorean military officials, President Rafael Correa is purging the armed forces of top commanders and pressing ahead with plans to cast out more than 100 members of the American military from an air base here in this coastal city.

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Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Ecuador's president plans to close an American base in the city of Manta that conducts drug-trafficking surveillence. It is the United States' most prominent military outpost in South America.

Mr. Correa — who this month dismissed his defense minister, army chief of intelligence and commanders of the army, air force and joint chiefs — said that Ecuador’s intelligence systems were “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the C.I.A.” He accused senior military officials of sharing intelligence with Colombia, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America.

The dismissals point to a willingness by Mr. Correa, an ally of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, to aggressively confront Ecuador’s military, a bastion of political and economic power in this coup-prone country of 14 million people. Mr. Correa’s moves mark a clear break with his predecessors, illustrating his wager that Ecuador’s institutions may finally be resilient enough to carry out such changes after more than a decade of political upheaval.

The gambit also poses a clear challenge to the United States. For nearly a decade, the base here in Manta has been the most prominent American military outpost in South America and an important facet of the United States’ drug-fighting efforts. Some 100 antinarcotics flights leave here each month to survey the Pacific in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with drug traffickers bound for the United States.

But many Ecuadoreans have chafed at the American presence and the perceived challenge to the country’s sovereignty, and Mr. Correa promised during his campaign in 2006 to close the outpost.

So far Ecuador’s armed forces, arbiters in the ouster of three presidents in the last 11 years, have bent to the will of Mr. Correa, a widely popular left-leaning president who has sought to assert greater state control over Ecuador’s petroleum and mining industries while challenging the authority of political institutions like the country’s Congress.

Still, tensions persist over his clash with top generals, which emerged after Colombian forces raided a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador last month. The raid against the rebel group, the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, put Ecuador and its ally Venezuela on edge with Colombia. Twenty-five people were killed, including Franklin Aisalla, an Ecuadorean operative for the group, known as the FARC.

The face-off between Ecuador and Colombia ended at a summit meeting in the Dominican Republic, but it has begun again over revelations that Ecuadorean intelligence officials had been tracking Mr. Aisalla, information that was shared not with the president, but apparently with Colombian forces and their American military advisers.

The leak became evident when video and photo images surfaced in Colombia and Ecuador showing Mr. Aisalla meeting with FARC commanders.

“I, the president of the republic, found out about these operations by reading the newspaper,” a visibly indignant Mr. Correa said last week during an interview in the capital, Quito, with foreign correspondents. “This is not something we can tolerate. He added that he planned to restructure the intelligence agencies to give him greater direct control over them.

In a rebuke of senior military officials, Mr. Correa named as defense minister his personal secretary, Javier Ponce, who was an outspoken critic of the armed forces in his previous careers as a poet and an editorial writer at some of Ecuador’s largest newspapers.

That move and other dismissals stand in contrast to Mr. Correa’s conciliatory policies toward the military after he took office last year, which included salary raises for soldiers; a 25 percent increase in the 2008 military budget, to $920 million; and lucrative highway construction contracts for companies controlled by military officials.

Unlike the armed forces of most other countries in Latin America, Ecuador’s military has retained substantial economic might since a military junta transferred power to a civilian government in the 1970s.

Through holding companies, the armed forces still control TAME, one of Ecuador’s largest airlines, and enterprises in the munitions, shrimp fishing, construction, clothing, flower farming and hydroelectric industries, making the military one of the country’s most powerful economic groups.

Mr. Correa has not challenged these financial interests. But he and his political supporters are moving forward with efforts to shift the military away from its traditional reliance on training and assistance from the United States and toward strengthening ties with the armed forces of other South American countries.

The first indication of his plans to shift the country’s focus was his promise to end the American presence at the Manta base once the United States’ lease expired in 2009.

Ecuador could suspend US accords

The Associated Press
Sunday, April 20, 2008; 11:10 PM

QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuador could suspend some military accords with the United States to block what it calls U.S. ideological influence in its armed forces, Defense Minister Javier Ponce said Sunday.

Ponce told the news program UNO that current agreements with the U.S. were signed under previous administrations "in the spirit of colonialism" and are under review. He did not give details or say which agreements could be suspended.

"The specter of (U.S.) training, financial support and technical support inevitably has permeated the structure and behavior" of Ecuador's security forces, creating "a national security problem," Ponce said.

But he denied any attempt to "demonize" relations with Washington.

President Rafael Correa named Ponce defense minister earlier this month as part of a top-level military and police leadership shake-up. Angered that his intelligence services gave Colombia information on an Ecuadorean with alleged ties to leftist rebels but did not inform him, Correa even accused them of being infiltrated by the CIA.

Correa also has said repeatedly that he will not renew the 10-year U.S. lease in Ecuador's Pacific port of Manta, which the United States uses for drug surveillance flights, when it expires in late 2009.