MANTA, Ecuador - Mayor Jorge Zambrano pulled up to the Manta City Hall in his black Ford Explorer, expecting to find a rally in support of the American military outpost that runs drug-surveillance flights from this gritty port city.
He left an hour later behind a wall of riot shields and a cloud of Mace, as police fended off banner-waving protesters who crashed the event in March.
With 18 months left on its decade-long contract, the U.S. Forward Operating Location in Manta has few friends in this South American nation -- and fewer still who believe that the agreement has any hope of being extended.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has vowed not to renew the base's contract beyond its November 2009 expiration. And politicians drafting a new constitution have proposed banning the base or any other foreign military presence in the country.
If the Manta base closes, it would leave the United States shopping for a new airstrip for the radar-mounted AWAC E3s, and P-3 spy planes that ply the Eastern Pacific, looking for drug runners.
It would also be another dark turn for rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Ecuadorean relations.
The United States sees the Manta compound -- with its manicured lawns and staff of about 150 pilots and crew members -- as part of a multinational effort that helped block $4.2 billion worth of narcotics last year.
But in Ecuador, the Base de Manta is viewed largely as an affront to national sovereignty that threatens to drag the country into the regional drug war.
The clashing views come as tensions between the nations are running high.
President Correa -- a staunch ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez -- has made the ousting of the Manta base central to his presidency, and he recently led a shake-up of Ecuador's armed forces, alleging that they were infiltrated by the CIA and too cozy with U.S. military advisors.
Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally, is accusing the Correa administration of sympathizing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombia claims that a FARC laptop, seized during a controversial and bloody cross-border raid into Ecuador on March 1, revealed that Correa's election campaign took FARC money.
Colombia also alleges that MarÃƒÂa Augusta Calle -- a member of Correa's Alianza PaÃƒÂs party who is pushing constitutional changes that would ban the Manta operation -- allowed the FARC to use her bank account.
The commander of the Forward Operating Location in Manta, Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, admits that the United States is losing the public-relations battle.
''There is so much misconception out there as to what we do here and what's going on,'' he said. ``And as you get further away from Manta, those misconceptions grow.''
Soon after the Colombian incursion, which killed 25 people, including FARC leader RaÃƒÂºl Reyes and an Ecuadorean national, rumors swirled in Ecuador's press that it was spy planes from Manta that helped pinpoint the rebel camp -- and may have even carried the bombs for the strike.
The United States insists that the stories are fiction, and analysts point out that Colombia has little need for such help. But the rumors have found a receptive audience in Ecuador, and the government has called for an audit of Manta's operations.
What it will find, Leonard says, are a handful of unarmed aircraft, dedicated solely to looking for drug runners at sea and in the air.
The base is one of three in the region -- including El Salvador and Aruba-Curac¸ao -- that feed information to the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West. JIATF South, as it's known, consists of different U.S. agencies and liaison officers from 12 nations, including Ecuador.
Paco Velasco, a member of the Alianza PaÃƒÂs party, said that fighting drugs is a national priority, but that the Manta base sends the wrong message. ''A foreign military base here makes our armed forces look bad, and it makes our nation look like it's not capable of taking care of itself,'' Velasco said.
It also gives the appearance that Ecuador is helping U.S.-backed efforts in Colombia to fight the FARC -- a conflict that Ecuador has tried to stay out of, he said.
Responding to the opposition, the United States has said it is willing to abandon the airstrip and move its operations to the remaining Forward Operating Locations, or to new locations in either Colombia or Peru.
At the same time, however, Manta's command is in the midst of an aggressive charm offensive to win supporters and -- just maybe -- the chance to stay.
For the last few months, Leonard has been escorting journalists and politicians around the base, inviting them to ``open any door and look under any rug.''
On show is the $71 million investment that has helped turn this once tiny airstrip into an international airport, complete with a state-of-the-art fire station. The base's planes haul in tons of donations and emergency aid, and the base supports dozens of charities, including orphanages, schools for the handicapped and a beauty pageant.
The Manta operation pumps $6.5 million a year into the local economy and employs about 150 local staff members, Leonard said.
Those are figures that the government should be focusing on, said Zambrano, Manta's longtime mayor.
While the base is not the primary economic engine in this town of 250,000 that lives off industrial fishing, it does help, he said.
''The base not only creates direct jobs, but there are hundreds of small businesses that provide services to the base,'' Zambrano said.
Back in Quito, political analyst SimÃƒÂ³n Pachano cannot foresee a scenario in which the Manta base might be allowed to stay open.
Unlike his predecessors, Correa is enjoying unprecedented popularity. And his aggressive anti-American and anti-Colombian stance plays well in this nation accustomed to taking a back seat in regional politics.
In exchange for using the base free of charge for 10 years, the United States agreed to expand and update the airstrip, and cooperate with Ecuador on counter-narcotics initiatives.
The fact that the 1999 deal was never approved by Ecuador's full legislature -- only that body's International Affairs Committee -- has made it a political target, Pachano said.
''The Manta agreement has always been viewed as a mistake, and it's even less politically viable now,'' said Pachano, a professor at the Latin American University for social sciences.
As a cab driver in Manta, RenÃƒ© Santana says he has mixed feelings about the base. While he appreciates the extra dollars he makes shuttling crew members or visitors to the airport, the extra money has its price.
''As an Ecuadorean, I can't go anywhere in the world without a hassle, but we let these U.S. military people come here like they own the place,'' he said. ``All human beings want their home to be respected. We all want national sovereignty.''
© 2008 The Miami Herald