The Miami Herald
March 11, 2000
U.S. drug war finding allies in formerly hostile region


 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 Nicaragua, who
 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 against drug
 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 seized 2.6
 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 was nearly
 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, the
 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,'' said Juan
 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 States. With
 stepped-up enforcement efforts making the traditional Caribbean smuggling routes
 more difficult, traffickers are increasingly turning to Central America to move their
 product north.

 About 60 percent of the cocaine leaving South America for the United States
 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 result was inevitable. ``Narcotraffickers take the path of least resistance,''
 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, who once
 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
 joint operations.''


 More broadly, bruised feelings from the 1980s seem to be healing. Central
 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 sides warn
 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 have been
 disastrously confrontational at a time when the two countries were warming up to
 American overtures.

 ``It took a lot of lobbying by the [U.S.] ambassadors to get Nicaragua and
 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

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