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Multinational Anti-Drug Center May Be Built in Panama


August 1997

Informal talks are underway regarding the creation of a multinational center to fight drug trafficking that may be built in Panama. Howard Air Force Base, located near the Panama Canal, would be converted into an anti-drug center under the plan, according to U.S. Ambassador William J. Hughes. Formal negotiations may begin soon, and there may be a national referendum in Panama next year on the center (John Otis, "Panama may let 1,000 U.S. troops remain past 1999," Houston Chronicle, July 6, 1997, p. 22A).

Panama President Ernesto Perez Balladares proposed the center, which would involve more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel and incur a cost of $100 million annually. The creation of the center would mean that U.S. troops would remain in Panama during the next century, a deviation from the 1977 Panama Canal treaties. Panamanian General Omar Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaties, which mandated the pullout of all U.S. troops by 1999, and called for the turnover of control of the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama.

Over the past two decades, as 5,000 U.S. troops have pulled out, the Panamanian economy has been hurt by base closings and the loss of jobs. A recent survey by the newspaper La Prensa found that of 1,200 Panamanians surveyed, 79% supported the creation of the drug center. If it is built, the center would involve military and civilian personnel from the U.S., Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. "I think there is a lot of interest in Washington in the anti-drug center," said Ambassador Hughes. "Panama is a strategic location."

Panama currently has a small police force that some say does not have the resources to deal with drug trafficking. "Years ago, the drug problem wasn't so bad," said Jorge Ritter, who is involved in the talks. "In the Torrijos-Carter treaties, there's not one word about drugs. But today, the main mission of the military bases is to fight drugs." But former President Jorge Illueca warned that the center would essentially be a U.S.-run military operation operating in neutral territory. "We can't disguise the base as an anti-drug center," he said. "It will be a military base."