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Forward Operating Locations

Once its 1999 exit from Panama appeared inevitable, the U.S. military immediately began pursuing another alternative to replace Howard Air Force Base’s counter-drug facilities. U.S. officials began negotiating arrangements to use existing airfields in Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America as platforms for U.S. counter-narcotics flights.

Under these arrangements, which the Defense Department calls “Forward Operating Locations,” or “FOLs,” U.S. aircraft on detection and monitoring missions have access to foreign airports or air bases. The foreign facilities are owned and operated by the host country. Small numbers of military, DEA, Coast Guard and Customs personnel are stationed at the FOLs to support the U.S. aircraft and to coordinate communications and intelligence.

Washington decided that three FOLs would be needed to replace Howard Air Force Base, one in South America, one in the Caribbean and one in Central America.1 All must meet the following requirements, enumerated by U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) Commander-in-Chief Gen. Charles Wilhelm:

Each site must be night and all weather capable with an air traffic control facility, an 8,000-foot runway with the capability to support small, medium and heavy aircraft. Each FOL must also have refueling and crash/fire rescue capabilities and minimum ramp, hangar, office, maintenance, and storage space.2

The Southern Command has completed agreements for three sites. An Andean region FOL is operating at the Eloy Alfaro International Airport in Manta, Ecuador. A "northern drug source zone" FOL is at the Reina Beatrix International Airport in Aruba and the Hato International Airport in nearby Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles. A third Central American FOL is being established at the International Airport in Comalapa, El Salvador.

In February 1999 U.S. government teams began negotiations with Ecuador and the Netherlands. An interim agreement for the use of Manta, was reached with Ecuador on April 1, 1999, and a ten-year agreement was reached in November 1999. An interim agreement with the Netherlands for Aruba and Curaçao, was concluded through an April 16, 2000 exchange of diplomatic notes; a ten-year agreement was signed in March 2000. In March 2000, the U.S. and Salvadoran governments signed a ten-year agreement for the Comalapa facility, which was ratified by the legislature on July 7.

All facilities, particularly Manta, have required significant U.S. investments in repairs and infrastructure improvements. In 1999, the Air Force estimated the full cost of renovation for the Manta, Aruba and Curaçao sites to reach $122.5 million.3 This funding was largely provided by $116 million included in the appropriation for the United States' large Colombia aid package (Division B, Title III, 2001 Military Construction Appropriations bill, H.R. 4425, Public Law 106-246). This amount will go to improvements at Manta ($61.3 million), Aruba ($10.3 million) and Curacao ($43.9 million), plus planning and design funds ($1.1 million). El Salvador did not receive funding through this bill because the agreement between the United States and El Salvador did not get legislative approval until after the bill’s passage.

Section 139 of the 2001 Military Construction Appropriations Act (H.R. 4425, Public Law 106-246) requires the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to the congressional defense committees on the FOLs' construction, security and operation. The report must include a detailed schedule for making them operational, including cost estimates; a description of each site’s capabilities and relationship to the overall counter-drug strategy; a plan explaining how the FOLs will satisfy the operating requirements of U.S. agencies with counter-drug responsibilities; a plan for guaranteeing the security of FOL personnel from outside threats; and a safety plan. The report was due within 60 days of the bill’s enactment, or September 11, 2000.

Aruba and Curaçao

Defense Department and Customs Service aircraft have been operating at Curaçao’s Hato International Airport and Aruba’s Reina Beatrix International Airport since April 1999.

The Curaçao section of this Caribbean FOL is to support two large, two medium and six small aircraft, with as many as 200 to 230 temporarily deployed operations and maintenance personnel. The Curaçao site is currently hosting Air National Guard F-16s, Navy P-3 and E-2 Airborne Early Warning planes, U.S. Air Force E-3 AWACS and other U.S. aircraft. The presence in Aruba will be smaller, with two medium and three small aircraft, about fifteen permanently assigned staff and twenty to twenty-five temporarily deployed operations and maintenance personnel.4

A U.S. Air Force “Site Activation Task Force” identified some of the improvements that would be required for the FOL’s long-term operation. These included upgrades and pavement improvements to ramps and taxiways and construction of maintenance and operations facilities.5

Manta, Ecuador

Required infrastructure improvements kept the Manta FOL from becoming operational until mid-June 1999.6 Today, reports Defense Department drug-policy official Ana María Salazar, "Manta is now capable of 24-hour, 7 days per week, all-weather flight operations. U.S. Navy P-3 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) are conducting Eastern Pacific counter-drug detection and monitoring missions from this facility." 

A U.S. Air Force “Site Activation Task Force” visit to the facility, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast about 210 miles south of Colombia, found the site needing numerous basic repairs and improvements before it can come close to filling its expected capacity. The Manta runway, for instance, cannot accommodate AWACS radar planes, which the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) considers essential for counter narcotics detection and monitoring.7

Once the site is fully operational, it will host four large and seven medium-sized U.S. aircraft and six to eight permanent U.S. support staff. The number of temporarily assigned staff will fluctuate but is expected to reach the low hundreds during peak periods. Runway improvements in 2001 are expected to shut the facility down for six to eight months.8

As indicated above, the 2000-2001 Colombia aid package bill provides $61.3 million for improvements to Manta. A 2000 U.S. Southern Command document breaks down how this amount will be spent:9

Airfield Pavement / Site Improve $38.60m
Aircraft Maint Hangar / Nose Dock $6.70m
Fire Crash / Rescue Station $2.20m
POL / Maintenance Facility $4.90m
Squadron Operations Facility $2.60m
Visiting Qtrs / Dining Facility $4.65m
Visiting Qtrs $1.60m

Comalapa, El Salvador

The El Salvador facility will host four P-3 (or similar sized) aircraft. While it is capable of accommodating the larger AWACS radar planes, there is no plan to station them at Comalapa for the time being. The main focus of the flights using this site will be detecting maritime drug trafficking, especially in the Pacific. The Defense Department plans to request funding for improvements, such as paving and support facilities, in its 2002 military construction appropriations request to Congress.10

Other sites


1 Charles E. Wilhelm, Commander in Chief, United States Southern Command, “Statement Before the Senate Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommitee and the Military Construction Subcommittee on Forward Operating Locations,” Washington, July 14, 1999.

2 Wilhelm, "Statement," July 14, 1999.

3 Walter Slocombe, Under Secretary Of Defense (Policy), “DOD Counter drug Forward Operating Locations,” Statement before the Senate Committee On Appropriations Subcommittees On Defense And Military Construction, Washington, July 14, 1999.

4 Ana Maria Salazar, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support, testimony before the United States House Of Representatives Committee On Government Reform, Subcommittee On Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, June 9, 2000 <http://www.usinfo.state.gov/topical/global/drugs/canal.htm>.

Wilhelm, "Statement," July 14, 1999.

5 Wilhelm, "Statement," July 14, 1999.

6 Salazar, June 9, 2000.

7 Wilhelm, "Statement," July 14, 1999.

8 Salazar, June 9, 2000.

9 United States Southern Command, "Information on Forward Operating Location Manta (Eloy Alfaro Int'l Airport)," Document obtained November 2000.

10 Salazar, June 9, 2000.


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Last updated: 01/26/07.