BOGOTA - The United States and Colombia are nearing agreement on expanding the U.S. military's presence in this conflict-torn nation, potentially basing hundreds of Americans in a central valley to support Air Force drug interdiction missions.
Both sides say they hope a fifth round of talks slated for later this month in Bogota will seal a 10-year lease deal. Two of the Colombian ministers involved were to answer questions about the talks at a public hearing Wednesday following complaints about secrecy surrounding the negotiations.
Opponents worry that a broadened U.S. military role in the world's No. 1 cocaine-producing nation could antagonize Colombia's leftist neighbors and draw Washington deeper into Colombia's complicated, long-running conflict with leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries.
Details of the negotiations are secret and U.S. officials declined comment other than to confirm the talks' next round.
However, senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations told The Associated Press that the idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations - though without exceeding a limit of 1,400 U.S. military personnel and contractors set by the U.S. Congress.
The Colombian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the open negotiations, said the current draft accord specifies more frequent "visits" by U.S. aircraft and warships to three air bases as well as two naval bases - at Malaga Bay in the Pacific and Cartagena in the Caribbean. Colombia could also get preferential treatment in arms and aircraft purchases.
The centerpiece of the talks is the Palanquero air base at Puerto Salgar on the Magdalena river 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Bogota.
The U.S. interdiction missions it would assume - identifying suspect vessels and planes so Coast Guard and Navy ships can intercept them and look for drugs - had been flown out of Manta, Ecuador, on the Pacific Ocean.
About 220 Americans shared space at a Manta's international airport but were allowed no more than eight planes at a time.
The E-3 AWACs and P-3 Orion surveillance planes based there were credited with about 60 percent of drug interdiction in the eastern Pacific. But the U.S. mission there is shutting down this week because President Rafael Correa refused to renew its lease, calling their presence a violation of Ecuador's sovereignty.
Palanquero was off-limits to U.S. military operations until April 2008 after a human rights sanction: A Colombian military helicopter operating out of it had killed 17 civilians in the 1998 bombing of a northern town that was initially covered up.
A bill passed by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for construction at Palanquero, which has a 3,500-meter runway and two huge hangars and is home to Colombia's main fighter wing.
The money would be released 15 days after an agreement is signed, according to a key congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to comment publicly on such matters.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment about the talks, as did Colombia's acting defense minister, Gen. Freddy Padilla. "Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon," told the AP.
Asked recently about the talks, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield stressed that Washington would not be acquiring bases but rather obtaining increased access to Colombian facilities.
U.S. Southern Command spokesman Robert Appin said the Pentagon would have no immediate comment.
However, one indication of the Pentagon's goals can be found in a U.S. Air Mobility Command document "Global En Route Strategy" that was presented in early April at a symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Beyond counternarcotics, Palanquero could become a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed" the document proposes.
A potential jumping-off point for operations by expeditionary forces, in other words.
"Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling" from Palanquero, the document says.
Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and candidate for president in May 2010 elections, has complained of secrecy surrounding the negotiations, and worries about alienating other South American nations. The radar and communications intercept ability of U.S. aircraft can extend well beyond Colombia's borders.
"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said, although one of the Colombian officials said the agreement will specify that U.S. flights won't cross Colombia's borders without permission from affected countries.
It is not clear what other restrictions would be placed under a new bases agreement on U.S. military aircraft, warships or troops. Putting more Americans on the ground would raise the risk of casualties, although Colombia's leftist rebels - chiefly funded through cocaine trafficking - have no record of attacking Americans in the country.
About 600 U.S. service personnel and civilian contractors already work in Colombia, according to the most recent figures available. Advisers are attached to Colombian army divisions, have their own offices at armed forces headquarters and have trained thousands of Colombian troops since 2000.
Under U.S. law, the number of Department of Defense employees in Colombia cannot exceed 800 while the number of military contractors cannot top 600.
That number would not change under the draft accord, the senior Colombian officials said. Nor, they said, would U.S. troops lose their immunity from criminal prosecution.
While drug interdiction is the chief U.S. goal, some worry that bringing in more Americans will lead to the U.S. taking sides in a conflict involving Colombia's military, rebels and private militias over land and cocaine that has led to hundreds of extra-judicial killings of civilians over the years.
The U.S. could be pushing Colombia to negotiate a solution with the leftist rebels, said John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation. Instead, "this is an indicator that the United States is going to be supporting a military approach."