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Southern Command Presence in Puerto Rico

With the closure of U.S. bases in Panama, Puerto Rico has become home to the highest concentration of U.S. military forces in Latin America. Several components of the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), the body responsible for U.S. military activity in Latin America and the Caribbean, have relocated to Puerto Rico, where they are sharing existing facilities with other U.S. units.

Fort Buchanan, in San Juan, now hosts the headquarters of U.S. Army South (USARSO), Southcom’s army component. The Army’s only presence in the Caribbean, Fort Buchanan became a USARSO installation in June 1997, and USARSO headquarters completed its move there from Fort Clayton, Panama in July 1999. The Southcom component, which includes an infantry battalion and aviation, engineer, intelligence, logistics and military police units, is now headquartered in the former “Building 390” barracks on the grounds of Fort Buchanan. The Defense Department is building new facilities for USARSO at Fort Buchanan as well, such as a 75-room guest house and a middle school.1 The USARSO presence at Fort Buchanan will include 1,382 active and reserve soldiers and civilians.2

Other units relocating from Panama to Fort Buchanan include the 56th Signal Battalion, the U.S. Army Garrison Command, a Military Intelligence Detachment, a Military Intelligence Support Detachment, and a Veterinary Detachment.3

Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico near Ceiba, now hosts the headquarters of Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), the Special Forces component of the U.S. Southern Command, which was formerly located at East Corozal, a sub-installation on the grounds of Fort Clayton, Panama. SOCSOUTH HQ’s 309 military and civilian personnel completed their move to Roosevelt Roads in June 1999.4

Several other Southcom assets are relocating to Roosevelt Roads, among them the 112th Signal Detachment, Company C, Third Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, a detachment from the army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Naval Special Warfare Unit 5, the SCN Southern Command broadcasting network, Navy P-3 counter-drug aircraft, and two LCU-2000 Landing Craft Utility heavy cargo boats.

The Isla Grande Airport in San Juan will host two C-12 airplanes and two UH-60 “Blackhawk” helicopters belonging to U.S. Army South (USARSO).

The Borinquén Airport in Aguadilla and the Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina will host U.S. Air Force Command and Control Elements and C-130 aircraft of “Coronet Oak,” a Southcom reserve unit used for airlifting cargo.

ROTHR and Vieques

Like U.S. states, the territory of Puerto Rico contains numerous U.S. active and reserve military facilities. While not all have been fully integrated into Southcom’s “theater architecture,” two of these facilities are of particular interest.

The U.S. Navy has completed a new “Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar” (ROTHR) to detect narcotics smuggling flights in South America. Existing ROTHRs in Virginia and Texas carry out surveillance over Mexico and the Caribbean. The new site is being constructed at Fort Allen in central Puerto Rico and on the small island of Vieques off the island’s east coast.

Another Navy facility on Vieques, the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF), has been a center of attention since April 19, 1999, when a plane practicing bombing at the facility missed its target by three miles, killing a Puerto Rican civilian AFWTF security guard. The Navy occupies nearly two thirds of the island, while civilians live on the remaining third; bombing tests have taken place on Vieques since the 1940s despite regular citizen protests. 

The April 1999 incident led to widespread demands – issued by nongovernmental organizations as well as Puerto Rico's governor – that the Navy close the bombing range and leave Vieques. In June 1999, the Navy temporarily froze bombing on Vieques and President Clinton directed Secretary of Defense William Cohen to form a panel to determine the need for the AFWTF and to evaluate the possibility of vacating Vieques. The panel's report recommended that practice bombing be allowed to resume for the time being, but that the Navy prepare to abandon the island within five years.

The future of practice bombing on Vieques will be determined by sections 1501 through 1508 of the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4205, Public Law 106-398). These provisions codify a January 2000 agreement that allows the U.S. Navy to conduct bombing tests on Vieques using inert (non-explosive) bombs, pending the results of a referendum on the facility’s future. The agreement's components include the following:

  • The municipality of Vieques will immediately receive $40 million in economic assistance. The 2001 Military Construction Appropriations Act (H.R. 4425, Public Law 106-246) mandates that the Defense Department may use the $40 million through 2003, and may transfer it to other U.S. agencies better equipped to provide economic assistance. The law specifies that the funds must pay for a health study, fire-fighting equipment, improvements to a commercial ferry pier, construction of an artificial reef, conservation of a natural reef, payments to fishermen for earnings lost due to bombing tests, construction of roads and bridges, apprenticeship and training programs, natural resource preservation, other economic development activities, and the cost of a referendum, discussed below, on the future of live-fire testing.

  • The Navy will immediately hand over its Ammunition Support Detachment on the western side of the island to the municipality of Vieques, except for two facilities: a new relocatable over-the-horizon radar (ROTHR) facility and a telecommunications equipment site on Mount Pirata. Conservation zones on this land will be transferred to the Department of the Interior for use as a wildlife refuge.

  • A referendum on the future of live-fire training at Vieques must take place 270 days before or after May 1, 2001. Voters have two options:

  1. Allow the Navy to resume live-fire training immediately, and receive $50 million in additional economic assistance.

  2. Allow the Navy to conduct inert bombing tests until 2003, when all Navy facilities on the eastern side of the island would be closed and handed over to the Department of the Interior for use as a wildlife refuge. No additional economic assistance would be forthcoming.

Other sites


1 “U.S. Army South moving out of Panama,” Army News Service, May 26, 1999 <http://www.dtic.mil/armylink/news/May1999/a19990527panama-new.html>.

2 “U.S. Army South moving out of Panama.”

Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander in chief, U.S. Southern Command, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, Narcotics and Terrorism, June 22, 1999.

United States, U.S. Southern Command, “Posture Statement Of General Charles E. Wilhelm, United States Marine Corps Commander In Chief, United States Southern Command Before The Senate Armed Services Committee,” March 4, 1999.

3 United States Southern Command, Post-99 Theater Architecture: The Way Ahead, slideshow document, October 28, 1998.

4 United States Navy, “U.S. Special Operations Command-South to relocate,” Navy News Service February 4, 1999 <http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/news/navnews/nns99/nns99006.txt>.


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Last updated: 01/26/07.