US Troops Will Return To Ecuador, Decades After Removal By Correa

Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa ratified military cooperation agreements between Ecuador and the United States on February 15. The agreements regarding joint operations to combat illegal maritime activity and the status of US troops in the country were signed by Noboa’s predecessor, Guillermo Lasso, in September 2023. They were ratified by the young president after a ruling by the Constitutional Court on January 23, 2024 that the agreements do not have to go through the legislature.

The approval of the agreements comes in the second month of the “internal armed conflict” declared by Noboa on January 8, 2024 following a spike in violent crime by drug trafficking groups in the country. Noboa designated 22 groups as transnational criminal organizations and “terrorist” and ordered the military to crack down on them and their illicit activities. For his “Operation Phoenix”, Noboa declared that he would accept all the help he could get. Since the internal armed conflict was declared, more than 8,000 people have been detained.

US troops are back

The general of the US Southern Command, Laura Richardson, visited Ecuador just two weeks after the declaration of armed conflict to strengthen “US cooperation and assistance to bolster Ecuador’s efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations in the wake of a recent surge in violence”.

With the advance of military cooperation with the United States, major concerns have been raised regarding the agreements and the privileges they afford US soldiers occupying Ecuador. While the full content of the agreements has not been published by the president, news reports have given some details of what they contain. The agreement on the status of US troops refers to the “privileges, exemptions, and immunities” afforded to US military personnel while in Ecuador which are essentially parallel to diplomatic personnel. The US has also demanded full disciplinary control and criminal jurisdiction over its soldiers, a practice that has been widely criticized for decades in dozens of countries where the US has military bases and has led to violence on local communities without any course for justice.

Additionally, reports on the agreements say that all US personnel, both military and civilian, will not be required to pay local taxes, and all US personnel and aircraft, ships, and vehicles operated by the US Department of Defense will be granted the freedom of movement. The government in Quito has also reportedly waived the right to claim for issues relating to property damage by the Pentagon.

The agreements have also paved the way for the official return of US troops to Ecuador after over two decades. Military cooperation between Quito and Washington ended in 2009, when left-wing president Rafael Correa let the US lease on Pacific coast Manta Air Base expire and sent the US troops stationed there home.

Correa’s reasoning at the time was conditional, and stipulated that he’d be willing to renew the lease on Manta air base so long as the United States allowed Ecuador to place a base in Miami. “If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil, surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States.”

Plan Ecuador?

The Lasso administration had been holding private talks with US military officials, including Southern Command head General Laura Richardson, since early 2023. “We want to help Ecuador through this,” remarked Richardson. Many have compared the military cooperation with the US to the infamous Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia was a joint US-Colombian military aid program that spent close to USD 10 billion between 2000 and 2015, about 70% of which went to training, assisting, and equipping Colombia’s military. Marred by human rights violations and heavy criticism, the program did little to decrease the production of narcotics in the country and drug-trafficking related violence, and in practice led to a further militarized Colombian society.

Noboa and his predecessor Lasso both insist that the heavy militarization of Ecuador’s society is a response to a spike in violence in cities and the country’s prisons that was preceded by historic levels of peace and stability within the country. As highlighted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in a 2023 report, “following years of relatively low homicide rates, [Ecuador] has seen a 407% increase in homicides between 2016 and 2022, which can be attributed to intensifying violent competition among rival drug trafficking gangs.”

However, according to a recent report by researchers Andrés Tapia Arias and Andrés Madrid Tamayo, evidence suggests that much of the gang-related violence that Ecuador experiences is fomented by the same economic and political elites that claim to combat it. This is both indirectly through neoliberal economic policies which weaken social programs and state institutions, and directly through proven links to drug trafficking groups.

Given this reality, many question how effective the government’s response will be in actually addressing the problem and allege this is another attempt to perpetuate the so-called “war on drugs”. The legacy of the “war on drugs” across the US and Latin America and the Caribbean is a bitter one, with the major result being increased state oppression and criminalization of impoverished communities across the Americas to the tune of USD 1 trillion since 1971.

One month into his presidency in 2022, Colombian President Gustavo Petro met with Southern Command General Richardson and pushed back on the rewriting of the legacy of the war on drugs. “We were now speaking at length with General Laura Richardson… about the failure of the anti-drug policy. I think we have to call it that, without fear…It is our duty before the United States itself, but also before the world, not only to say it, but to propose alternatives other than having a million more Latin Americans dead.”

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