Soto Cano
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U.S. Southern Command

A "unified command" is a permanent U.S. military body with components from at least two military services, set up to carry out a specific responsibility. The U.S. Southern Command (or "Southcom") is one of five unified commands whose area of responsibility (frequently referred to as an "AOR") is geographic. Southcom's AOR includes 19 nations -- all of Latin America and the Caribbean excluding Mexico and French Guiana. In 1997, waters surrounding Central and South America, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean island nations were transferred from Atlantic Command to Southern Command responsibility.

Southcom is responsible for implementing U.S. security assistance programs within its AOR. It supports Security Assistance Organizations (SAOs), groups of military personnel at U.S. embassies who implement U.S. military aid programs. Southcom also carries out exercises, ongoing operations, military-to-military contact programs, Special Forces training, and most other U.S. military activities that occur in its area.

According to Southcom publications, the command's two highest-priority missions are counter narcotics and engagement with the region’s militaries. Other second-tier missions include arms control and non-proliferation, anti-terrorism operations, humanitarian and civic assistance, search and rescue and disaster relief.1

Many of Southcom's current duties owe to the Defense Department's designation as the lead U.S. government agency for international narcotics interdiction. Interdiction and counter-drug assistance are the rationale behind many ongoing operations, security assistance programs, exercises, military training and other activities funded through special defense budget authorizations.

U.S. troops do not directly engage foreign drug producers or smugglers, but they help foreign governments do so by providing intelligence and other support. A Joint Inter-Agency Task Force, radar sites, surveillance flights, and other ongoing operations carry out extensive detection and monitoring of suspected drug-smuggling activity. U.S. personnel pass information about drug shipments to foreign law-enforcement agencies "for appropriate action."2

Southcom’s engagement with other militaries takes several forms. “Among them,” according to the 1999 Southcom Posture Statement, “are combined operations, combined exercises, combined training and education, military to military contact programs, security assistance programs and humanitarian assistance programs.”3 In 1998, Southcom engagement activities involved over 2,265 individual deployments of over 48,132 temporarily assigned personnel, about 35 percent of them reservists and National Guard members.4

By December 31, 1999, Southcom will vacate Panama in compliance with the 1977 Panama Canal accords. The last remaining U.S. facilities in Panama, such as Fort Clayton, Fort Kobbe, Howard Air Force Base, and Fort Sherman, are being gradually emptied out and prepared for handover. Most of the command's assets in Panama are moving to facilities in Puerto Rico.

In September 1997 Southcom moved its headquarters from Quarry Heights, atop Ancon Hill near downtown Panama City, to a new facility in Miami, Florida. Advanced equipment at the site is used for field communication and surveillance throughout Southcom’s area of operation. Seven hundred military and civilian personnel are employed at the headquarters facility. When located in Panama, the headquarters’ average annual operating budget was $27 million; no new budget figures are available for the new facility.5


U.S. Army South (USARSO), Southcom’s Army component, moved its headquarters from Fort Clayton to Fort Buchanan, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, between October 1998 and July 1999.6 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.7

USARSO, according to a Southcom command profile, provides "the Army command and control structure for Southcom's area of operation, ... supports regional disaster relief and counter drug efforts and provides oversight, planning and logistical support for humanitarian and civic assistance projects."8 Following "Operation Just Cause" in 1989, its last wartime activity, USARSO’s mission has been focused on peacetime activities including security assistance, counter drug operations, and protecting U.S. personnel, property and the Panama Canal.9

Between July 30 and December 31, 1999, the only USARSO presence remaining in Panama is to be a “rear detachment” of 100 soldiers.10 Upon its move to Puerto Rico, USARSO will shrink from 3,868 to 1,382 active and reserve soldiers and civilians (the military component will shrink from 2,283 to about 900).11


U.S. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) is tasked with all Special Forces activity in the region. SOCSOUTH was headquartered at East Corozal, Panama until June 1999, when its 309 military and civilian personnel completed their move to U.S. Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico.12

SOCSOUTH personnel deploy to the region nearly 150 times each year for training, military engagement, counter narcotics and other missions.13 A 1998 Pentagon report provides some examples of the component command’s activities.

As the only deployable headquarters in theater, SOCSOUTH has rapidly supported numerous regional contingencies. A recent example includes providing force protection at ground based radar sites and interagency support to prevent, deter, and respond to terrorism. Additionally, SOF [Special Operations Forces] units continue to participate in international peacekeeping operations on the Ecuador/Peru border [a mission that has since been completed] and provide humanitarian demining operational assistance in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Deployed on a continuous basis throughout the source zone, SOF supports interagency and host nations’ air, land, riverine, and sea interdiction efforts to disrupt the production and movement of illegal drugs.14

SOCSOUTH conducts several dozen Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercises with the region’s militaries and police forces, and deploys at least as frequently on counter-drug training missions. Overall, U.S. Special Forces carry out over half of all U.S. military training of Latin American personnel.

Air Force

Southcom regarded Howard Air Force Base, which ceased operations on May 1, 1999, as “the jewel in its crown.” Built in 1939, Howard and its 8,000-foot runway hosted the 24th Wing, the Southcom component responsible for Air Force operations over Latin America and the Caribbean. The 24th Wing was part of the 12th Air Force, headquartered at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tuscon, Arizona.

The 24th Wing had one flying squadron, the 310th Airlift Squadron, which was deactivated in February 1999.15 Another unit formerly based at Howard, “Coronet Oak,” was a supporting squadron of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve C-130 cargo aircraft. The unit was responsible for airlifting cargo and providing personnel for Southcom since its founding in 1962. Coronet Oak will continue its activities from two locations in Puerto Rico: the Borinquén Airport in Aguadilla and the Muñiz Air National Guard Base in Carolina. “Coronet Nighthawk,” an Air National Guard counter-drug operation involving F-16 and F-15 fighter planes, will operate from a “Forward Operating Location (FOL)” at an airport elsewhere in the region.16 Other 24th wing assets have been moved to Puerto Rican airfields and FOLs in Aruba, Curaçao and Ecuador.


Southcom used Howard Air Force Base as a center for counter narcotics detection, monitoring, intelligence-gathering and communications. During most of the 1990s over 2,000 counter-drug flights per year originated from Howard.

Until May 1999 Howard was home to Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South (JIATF-S, formerly known as the Joint Air Operations Center). This facility, staffed by military, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Customs Service and civilian intelligence personnel, was established in 1992 to plan counter narcotics operations, train and advise the hemisphere’s counter-drug forces, and monitor South America’s skies for suspicious drug-related activity. JIATF-S also included military representatives from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.  JIATF-S focused on the "source zone," where drugs are produced. JIATF-East, in Key West, Florida, performed similar missions in the "transit zone," where drugs are transshipped to the United States.

JIATF-S closed its doors on May 1, 1999 and merged with the Key West facility. The consolidated task force now coordinates counter narcotics activities in both the source and transit zones. “Through deliberate integration of communications and information systems,” said Southcom Commander-in-Chief Gen. Charles Wilhelm, “we have created a single organization capable of ‘seeing’ from the Florida Straits into the Andean Ridge.”17


With the 1999 exit from Panama inevitable, in early 1999 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.

Three priority sites were identified: the Reina Beatrix International Airport in Aruba, the Hato International Airport in nearby Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, and the Eloy Alfaro International Airport in Manta, Ecuador. An additional site in Central America has not been selected; U.S. defense officials have shown a strong interest in the international airport at Liberia, Costa Rica, but negotiations have not begun because an FOL agreement is regarded as likely to violate Costa Rica’s constitution.

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

The Curaçao section of this Caribbean FOL, Gen. Charles Wilhelm of the U.S. Southern Command told a Senate subcommittee, “is expected to consist of seven to nine aircraft, 12 to 15 permanently assigned staff personnel and as many as 200-230 temporarily deployed operations and maintenance personnel.”18 The presence in Aruba will be smaller, with four U.S. customs aircraft, about fifteen permanently assigned staff and twenty to twenty-five temporarily deployed operations and maintenance personnel.19 Personnel numbers are expected to start small and grow as the FOL facilities are improved.

Though an interim agreement for use of the Eloy Alfaro airport at Manta, Ecuador was signed in April 1999, required infrastructure improvements kept the FOL from becoming operational until mid-June.20 Once the site is fully operational and agreement is reached with Ecuador on a permanent presence, Manta will host five to eight 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.21

Radar sites

Southcom maintains about seventeen radar sites to detect possible drug-smuggling flights.22 Six of these are Ground Based Radars (GBRs), three in Peru (Iquitos, Andoas and Pucallpa) and three in Colombia (San José del Guaviare, Marandúa and Leticia). The rest are mobile, in secret locations, or part of the Air Force’s Caribbean Basin Radar Network, which operates in six countries. (Two sites on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in Ríohacha and the island of San Andrés, are part of this latter network.)23

The U.S. Navy is building a new “Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar” (ROTHR) in Puerto Rico 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.


Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo) was established in 1983 under the name Joint Task Force 11, and was given its current name in August 1984. It is stationed at the Enrique Soto Cano semi-permanent air base, a Honduran-owned facility built in 1982 near Comayagua, Honduras.

The joint task force was originally established to support U.S. efforts on behalf of Central American militaries and, according to the task force’s web page, to “deter Nicaraguan aggression” during the region's civil wars of the 1980s. At its 1980s peak, over 2,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed at Soto Cano.24 Today, JTF-Bravo has about 500 troops present at any given time, nearly all of them there temporarily on short rotations.25

With the region at peace, specific activities include exercises, humanitarian and civic assistance (HCA) projects, disaster relief, and support for counter-drug operations. JTF-Bravo, a Southcom document adds, also assists Central American armed forces in "restructuring their militaries to fit changing security requirements."26

In late 1998 and early 1999, JTF Bravo played a central role in U.S. military efforts to help Central America recover from Hurricane Mitch. Personnel stationed at Soto Cano carried out numerous search and rescue operations in the storm’s immediate aftermath, while the base later served as a hub for U.S. military HCA infrastructure-rebuilding projects.

With the departure of the U.S. Army’s 228th Aviation Battalion from Fort Kobbe, Panama, many aviation assets of U.S. Army South (USARSO), Southcom’s army component, were moved to Soto Cano. These include a command and control element, CH-47 “Chinook” helicopters, and UH-60 “Blackhawk” and “Medevac” helicopters.27

The Honduran Constitution does not permit a permanent foreign presence in Honduras. A "handshake" agreement between the United States and Honduras allows JTF-Bravo to remain in Honduras on a "semi-permanent" basis. This agreement, an annex to the 1954 military assistance agreement between the United States and Honduras, can be abrogated with little notice.


Security Assistance Organizations (SAO) manage U.S. military activities in their respective countries, serve as Southcom's representatives to U.S. ambassadors and embassy country teams, and act as liaisons to foreign militaries throughout the region. There are twenty SAOs in the region, including Mexico, with a combined total staff of 161 – seventy-two military, twenty-three civilian, and sixty-six host-country employees.28

Other sites


1 Col. M. L. Olson, USMC, Vice Director, J-5, United States Southern Command, J5 Strategy, Policy and Plans Directorate, document acquired May 1997.

2 United States, Department of State, Enhanced Multilateral Drug Control Cooperation: A Counter narcotics Alliance for the Hemisphere, Washington, September 1997: 8. <http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/enforce/rpttocong/rpttoc.html> Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format <http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/enforce/rpttocong/report.pdf>.

3 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.

4 Southern Command, "Posture Statement."

5 United States Southern Command, Statement of General Charles E. Wilhelm, USMC, Commander in Chief, before the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Subcommittee on National Security, International Affairs, and Criminal Justice, House of Representatives, March 12, 1998: 32.

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

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

8 Description of the Military Bases in the Interoceanic Region, Panama, Inter-Oceanic Region Authority (ARI), April 1998 <http://www.ari-panama.com/ari-ing9.htm>.

9 Wilhelm, July 14, 1999.

10 “U.S. Army South moving out of Panama."

11 “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.

Wilhelm, March 4, 1999.

12 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>.

13 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.

Wilhelm, March 4, 1999.

14 United States, Defense Department, "Report on Training of Special Operations Forces for the Period Ending September 30, 1997," Washington, April 1, 1998.

15 Howard Air Force Base, April 1998 <http://www.howard.af.mil/>.

United States Southern Command Headquarters, Fact Sheet: U.S. Military in Panama Now, (Panama: January 31, 1997).

United States Southern Command, Profile of the U.S. Southern Command, October 1997, United States Southern Command Headquarters, April 1998 <http://www.ussouthcom.com/southcom/graphics/profile.htm>.

16 Howard Air Force Base.

Southern Command, Fact Sheet: U.S. Military in Panama Now.

Southern Command, Profile of the U.S. Southern Command.

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

17 Wilhelm, June 22, 1999.

18 Wilhelm, July 14, 1999.

19 Wilhelm, July 14, 1999.

20 United States, General Accounting Office, “Drug Control: Narcotics Threat From Colombia Continues to Grow,”  Report to Congressional Requesters no. GAO/NSIAD-99-136, Washington, June 1999 <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/useftp.cgi?IPaddress=> Adobe Acrobat (pdf) version <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/useftp.cgi?IPaddress=>.

Wilhelm, July 14, 1999.

21 Wilhelm, July 14, 1999.

22 Richard K. Kolb, "Tracking the Traffic. U.S. Southcom Counters Cocaine at the Source," Dialogo: The military forum of the Americas. (U.S. Southern Command: July-September 1997) <http://www.allenwayne.com/dialogo/julsep97/frames/article.htm>.

23 Walter B. Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for policy, United States Department of Defense, letter in response to congressional inquiry, April 1, 1999.

24 Joint Task Force Bravo web page <http://www.ussouthcom.com/southcom/jtfbravo/Index.htm>.

25 Southern Command, Profile of the U.S. Southern Command.

26 Southern Command, Profile of the U.S. Southern Command.

27 Wilhelm, June 22, 1999.

Southern Command, Post-99 Theater Architecture: The Way Ahead.

28 Department of State, Congressional Presentation for Foreign Operations, Fiscal Year 1999 1140.


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