In 2009, Ecuadorians voted in a referendum to remove all US military presence from the country. Now, thanks to an agreement signed in the dying days of Guillermo Lasso’s corruption-tainted government, US troops are coming back.
Just ten days ago, I reported in my post, “Back to Business As Usual: The US Is Once Again Vigorously Stirring the Pot in Its Own ‘Backyard‘”, that the US is seeking to escalate its war on drugs in Latin America, as a pretext for trying to regain strategic dominance of the region. It is doing so one country at a time, with the apparent ultimate endgame being direct, overt military intervention against Mexico’s drug cartels — on Mexican soil.
In mid-September, the head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Army Gen. Laura Richardson, visited Peru, a country that is in the grip of arguably its worst political crisis of this still-fledgling century. A few days later, the Peruvian government, which has virtually zero democratic legitimacy and is under investigation for human rights violations, signed an agreement with US Homeland Security Investigations to collaborate in transnational criminal investigations through the establishment of a Transnational Criminal Investigation Unit (TCIU).
Now, less than a month later, Peru’s Andean neighbour, Ecuador, is on exactly the same path. Last Friday (Sept 29), the country’s outgoing President (and former senior banker) Guillermo Lasso held a closed-door meeting with senior officials of the US Coast Guard and Department of Defense in Washington. The outcome of that meeting was two status agreements, one that will allow the deployment of US naval forces along Ecuador’s coastline while the other will permit the disembarking of US land forces on Ecuador’ soil, albeit only at the request of Ecuador’s government.
All with the ostensible aim of combatting drug trafficking organizations.
Obviously, that is not what this is really about. If Washington were serious about tackling the violence generated by the drug cartels, the first thing it could do is pass legislation to stem the southward flow of US-produced guns and other weapons. But that would hurt the profits of arms manufacturers. And if it were remotely serious about tackling the major cause of the drug problem — the rampant consumption of narcotics within its own borders — it would never have let Big Pharma unleash the opium epidemic. And once it had, it would never have let the perps walk free with the daintiest of financial slaps on the wrists.
The primary goal of this latest escalation in the US’ decades-old war on drugs, as with all previous escalations, is to achieve or maintain geostrategic dominance in key, normally resource-rich regions of the world while keeping the restive populace at home in line — or in prison, generating big bucks for the prison industrial complex.
From what I can tell, this latest escalation has so far received little media coverage in Ecuador and almost zero coverage in the English-language press, apart from one solitary article in the Washington Examiner:
The State Department has not publicized the agreements in any of the more than 30 press releases issued since Wednesday, but a State spokesperson confirmed to the Washington Examiner on Friday that it had signed status of forces agreements and maritime law enforcement agreements. Senior representatives from the Department of Homeland Security’s military branch, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Defense Department attended the signing.
The maritime agreement allows U.S. military vessels to be present in the waters off the northwestern coast of South America, which Colombian drug cartels use to move cocaine. The ability to move military vessels into the area will “strengthen cooperative law enforcement activities and build mutual capacity to prevent and combat illicit transnational maritime activity,” according to State.
The second agreement was a less common one, according to Adam Isacson, who heads defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America and has worked on Latin American issues since 1994.
Status of forces agreements outline the terms by which members of a foreign military, in this case the Defense Department, can operate or are expected to conduct themselves while in another country.
“That doesn’t mean we’re doing it, but it means we can and it means that they’re making a very clear signal to us that they want us more involved,” Crenshaw said.
Presumably, the reason why this story is getting such little attention, not even affording a press release by the State Department, has a lot to do with recent Ecuadorian history. You see, Ecuador is one of the few countries in the world to actually successfully close down all US military bases on its territory and force all US soldiers to withdraw. In 2009, when the US Air Force’s 10-year lease on the Manta base on Ecuador’s Pacific coast came up for renewal, Rafael Correa’s government held a referendum on the issue. The people overwhelmingly voted for the base to be closed.
According to article in the Washington Examiner, the US withdrew all of its forces from Ecuador. In reality, they were evicted. From Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus:
The last personnel left the base on 18 September, and the facilities used for a decade by the American military were all returned to Ecuador.
At a ceremony marking the American withdrawal, Foreign Minister Fander Falconí made the following strong statement: “The withdrawal of the American military is a victory for sovereignty and peace. Never again foreign bases on Ecuadorian territory, never again a sale of the flag.”1
Meanwhile, a relieved Defense Minister Javier Ponce commented: “I am glad that President Correa has fulfilled his election pledge and preserved the constitution.”
On the same day in the capital Quito, the citizens’ group Anti-Bases Coalition Ecuador held a concert of celebration. In exuberant Latin style about 200 people celebrated the American military withdrawal with singing and salsa dancing at an amphitheater. Messages of congratulation were read out from anti-base movements across the globe, starting with Japan, and each was greeted by loud applause.
At the closing ceremony, Martha Youth, a spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Quito, announced that together with other Forward Operating Locations in Central and South America, a total of 700 tons of drugs with a value of 35.1 billion USD had been seized. “We’ve done good work in cooperation with the Ecuadorian authorities”, she said.
However, Pablo Lucio Paredes, head of CONADE (Comisión Nacional de Control Antidopaje del Ecuador) begged to differ.
“Our country has received no benefits from American operations out of the Manta base these ten years. From the outset, the base’s real purpose was linked to the American geopolitical strategy to involve our country in the civil war in neighboring Colombia.”
Ecuador’s prior eviction of US forces is now being quietly undone. President Lasso has been requesting US help in creating a “Plan Ecuador” to combat the rising lawlessness in the country for over a year. The plan, he said, would be modelled on Plan Colombia, the disastrous drug-eradication program that burnt through $15 billion of US “aid” funds during more than two decades, worsened the violence in Colombia, bathed more than a million hectares of farmland in a rich brew of toxic chemicals, including Monsanto’s “probably” carcinogenic weedkiller glyphosate, exacerbated illegal mining while overseeing a significant upsurge in coca production.
From the first moment it was unveiled, at the 2022 Summit for the Americas in Los Angeles, the plan was hugely controversial, as I reported in May:
Plan Colombia was such a costly debacle that it become effectively unexportable to other parts of Latin America and beyond, says Adam Isacson, lead investigator of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Defense Oversight program, which monitors U.S. cooperation with Latin America’s security forces: “The US looked at the Plan Colombia experience and hoped that it had found something it could apply in Afghanistan, or in Mexico, or Central America, and found out that it didn’t work there.”
But nobody seems to have told this to Lassa, who said in LA last summer:
The background is the same. We could probably call it something else, but in effect, Ecuador wants to present a Plan Ecuador to the United States.
Even Voice of America reported that Lasso’s comments had stoked controversy at the Summit as well as among many lawmakers back home. Ecuador’s former Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said the proposal “betrayed a lack of understanding and comprehension of what Plan Colombia meant in practice for that country.”
If the idea was controversial last year, it is far more so today given that Lasso is in the process of withdrawing from political life following a raft of corruption, tax evasion and money laundering allegations that almost led to his impeachment. To ward off that threat, he dissolved parliament in May and called new elections in which neither he nor his party would participate. Lasso’s popularity, like that of Peru’s current President Dina Boluarte, had already hit rock (16% in April) and he has effectively been ruling Peru by decree since May.
One of the allegations Lasso faces is that his presidential campaign was partly financed by the Albanian mafia, which controls the cocaine routes between South America and Europe. As revealed in the “Gran Padrino” (Great Godfather) investigation by independent news outlet La Posta, Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, a well-connected banker, was not only running key government departments but was also doing business with Ruben Cherres, a notorious businessman with ties to the Albanian mafia who had been caught on tape boasting about removing and replacing members of the government at will in exchange for money and favours.
In March, Cherres was found dead alongside the bodies of his girlfriend, a friend and his security guard at a house on the Punta Blanca coast, just a few hundred yards from Lasso’s holiday home. Days later, a number of international intelligence agencies alerted journalists at La Posta that members of the Albanian mafia had entered Ecuador with the intention of taking revenge for the dismantling of the corruption network installed within the Lasso’s government. One of the organisation’s co-founders and a senior journalist left the country after receiving death threats.
In other words, the US has just signed an agreement to wage war on the drug cartels with a government that appears to be in league with at least one of those cartels. Luis Eduardo Vivanco, another co-founder of La Posta, recently told El Economista: “the line dividing the mafia from the government has become increasingly blurred” during the Lasso government. Following La Posta’s revelations of rampant corruption in the Lasso government, five US congressmen wrote a letter urging the Biden administration to reconsider the US government’s relationship with Ecuador. A couple of paragraphs (though the letter itself is well worth a full read):
Ecuador is now in the midst of a political and social crisis that is driven, in large part, by credible allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government. Investigative journalists have uncovered what appears to be a web of corruption that ties key associates of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso to organized crime figures. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that one of these individuals – Danilo Carrera – as well as President Lasso himself have been using U.S. jurisdictions to hide assets and avoid taxes, in violation of Ecuadorian law…
Corruption and criminal activity appear to have deeply penetrated Ecuador’s security apparatus, prompting the U.S. ambassador in Quito to denounce the country’s “narco-generals.” The general security situation has plummeted since Lasso took office with the country’s homicide rate nearly doubling.
Predictably, the Biden administration appears to have taken no notice of the letter. Rather than reconsidering relations with Ecuador, it is intensifying them.
Lasso himself only has ten days left in government and is currently visiting New York for personal reasons. The second round of Ecuador’s presidential elections will take place on October 15 and most opinion polls are predicting a close race between Lisa González, the leader of former President Rafael Correa’s left-leaning Citizen Revolution Movement party, and Daniel Noboa, the Miami-born 35-year old son of Álvaro Fernando Noboa Pontón, Ecuador’s richest man, banana plantation owner and former presidential candidate.
Unsurprisingly for a country that saw the number of violent crimes almost double last year and recently witnessed the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, the most important electoral issue is security. But whether Lasso’s “Plan Ecuador” plays any part in the next government’s national security agenda will depend on who wins the election, with González likely to rip it up in her first few days while Noboa will probably do the opposite. But that’s just an educated guess.
With Ecuador’s national assembly currently dissolved by Lasso, his plan must also be submitted for approval to Ecuador’s Supreme Court. In the meantime, the US will be scoping Latin America for other governments with whom to strike up similar military partnerships, with Uruguay and oil-rich Guyana seemingly high up the list.