Forward Operating Locations in Latin America

Transcending Drug Control
19 September 2003
Policy briefing

This issue of Drugs & Conflict explains the background to and operation of the US Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) in Ecuador, El Salvador and Aruba/Curacao, established since 1999.

This issue of Drugs & Conflict explains the background to and operation of the US Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) in Ecuador, El Salvador and Aruba/Curacao, established since 1999. While FOLs have been set up in many parts of the world, most recently around Afghanistan and in the Gulf Region, the only available justification, until recently, for establishing these US-commanded airbases in Latin America had been the War on Drugs.

The host countries agreed to the establishment of the FOLs to facilitate military surveillance for the purpose of interdicting drug shipments. There is no evidence that the FOLs have made any discernible difference to the flow of illicit drugs to the USA, however, as even US military sources and the US General Accounting Office publicly acknowledge. There is little question that the FOLs form part of a US military strategy towards Latin America and the Caribbean. The FOLs came into being with the closure of the Howard Air Force Base in Panama in 1999 from which the US Southern Command had operated.

The US Department of Defence had to come up with an alternative means of assuring operational capacity in the region. There is evidence that the FOLs are being used for a number of purposes, besides the ostensible role in counter-narcotics efforts. This includes gathering intelligence on arms trafficking in the region and migrant boasts destined for the USA. Serious concerns have arisen about the possible use of the FOLs in support of US military involvement in the Colombian conflict. The war on drugs has been explicitly incorporated into the "global war on terrorism". Though the host countries have insisted on the limited anti-drugs mission of the FOLs, the mission has gradually shifted to support what is now called a "unified campaign" against drugs and terrorism.

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