BY GLENN GARVIN
MANAGUA -- When officials here announced last week that they hope
to sign a
treaty within the next few months giving U.S. military ships the right to pursue
suspected narcotics traffickers into Nicaraguan coastal waters, the surprise was
the reaction: Instead of the usual cries of American intervention, there was dead
``Things have changed,'' said Oliver Garza, U.S. ambassador to
made a maritime treaty on narcotics enforcement a top priority when he arrived
here last September. ``People have recognized that an international
counternarcotics effort is not only not bad, it's actually good politics.''
In a startling turnaround, cooperation with the U.S. military
trafficking, which just a few years ago was political poison in Central America,
has become politically profitable.
The change is visible all around Central America:
Costa Rica, which prides itself on rejecting just about anything
with even the
remotest military connection, approved what U.S. diplomats consider a model
treaty that permits not only hot pursuit of suspected drug smugglers into territorial
waters but counternarcotics flights through Costa Rican airspace. ``Our national
sovereignty is being violated daily by drug dealers, and all we have to combat it
are the equivalent of paddleboats,'' said Vanessa Castro, a congresswoman from
the normally anti-military Liberation party.
Honduras -- where relations with the United States have been so
prickly in recent
years that President Carlos Flores went on television to denounce American aid
efforts after Hurricane Mitch -- is within weeks of signing a similar maritime
agreement with Washington.
El Salvador's national police chief, Mauricio Sandoval, announced
last week that
the country was beginning air and sea patrols aimed at catching cocaine-laden
ships that slip northward up the country's Pacific coast. But Sandoval bluntly said
his forces were only a stopgap measure and that what El Salvador really needs is
a treaty that will permit U.S. vessels to work Salvadoran waters.
Guatemala, working with U.S. law enforcement agencies, last year
metric tons of cocaine being trucked up the Pan American Highway in shipping
containers, the largest single bust on land in Central American history.
El Salvador and Honduras have indicated interest in permitting
one of their
airfields to be used for U.S. military aircraft monitoring suspected drug flights from
Latin America -- something that Panama refused to do last year when it closed
down Howard Air Force Base as part of the Panama Canal turnover.
Until recently, close cooperation with U.S. counternarcotics efforts
impossible in Central America. The faintest whiff of it brought stormy protests that
governments were abandoning their sovereignty -- and, moreover, doing so to
combat something that was a problem for gringos and not Central Americans.
The change is particularly noticeable in Nicaragua. After the
announcement of the
proposed treaty on hot pursuit of drug smugglers by U.S. military ships, the
Nicaraguan army, which only a decade ago was virtually at war with the United
States, announced it was inviting a delegation from the U.S. Southern Command
to inspect the country.
Last month, at a regional conference on combating narcotics trafficking,
president of El Salvador's congress warned his colleagues that nationalism had to
be put aside if the Central American countries hoped to fight drugs.
``To make a common front under a treaty is a matter of conscience,''
Carlos Deuch, ``of accepting certain limitations on the natural rights of every
country on things like sovereignty, joint patrols and extradition treaties.'' The other
delegates applauded him.
The change couldn't come at a more welcome time for the United
stepped-up enforcement efforts making the traditional Caribbean smuggling routes
more difficult, traffickers are increasingly turning to Central America to move their
About 60 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the
travels through Central America, U.S. law enforcement authorities say, because
the governments leave their coastlines almost unguarded, air coverage is spotty,
and highway border crossings are undermanned.
THE EASIEST PATH
The result was inevitable. ``Narcotraffickers take the path of
said a DEA agent who has worked in Central America for several years. ``And
here, there was almost no resistance.''
But that's changing. One important factor is that the smuggling
is no longer
perceived as strictly a ``gringo problem,'' because some of the drugs are staying
behind. Cocaine use is up sharply throughout Central America.
Another reason involves money: Central American armed forces,
jealously guarded their prerogatives when it came to a foreign presence on their
territory, have become enthusiastic boosters of treaties with the United States.
Their eyes nearly popped out over the $1.6 billion U.S. military aid package
proposed for Colombia.
``We think it's a good idea if the U.S. Army, the DEA, the FBI
and some others
come to see what we're doing, the difficulties we have in some places here,''
Nicaraguan Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alvarado said, ``so we can all get
together and determine how they can help us strengthen our strategic capacity for
OLD QUARRELS FADING
More broadly, bruised feelings from the 1980s seem to be healing.
America's political left bitterly resented U.S. intervention in the region during that
era, and even the political right, which backed American military assistance,
bridled at the strings that were attached.
Even though the old quarrels seem to be fading, diplomats on both
that the new spirit of cooperation could easily be shattered if Washington pushes
too far too fast. The U.S. ambassadors in Honduras and Nicaragua were appalled
last year to discover that the State Department was about to put the two
countries on its annual list of ``major drug producing and drug transit'' countries.
Many U.S. diplomats say including Honduras and Nicaragua would
disastrously confrontational at a time when the two countries were warming up to
``It took a lot of lobbying by the [U.S.] ambassadors to get Nicaragua
Honduras off that list,'' said an American diplomat who followed the controversy
closely. ``They really had to argue, `We don't want drugs to become the focal
points of our relations here. These countries are not Colombia.' Fortunately, it
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald