Last week, the Government of El Salvador extended its agreement with the United States to allow U.S. anti-narcotics aircraft to operate out of the Salvadoran Air Force base at Comalapa for five more years. Since March 2000, the United States has used the Comalapa Air Force base as a Forward Operating Location (FOL) – the same arrangement as the Manta Air Base in Ecuador, which U.S. personnel will be vacating by November – to “allow interdiction aircraft to be forward deployed closer to drug routes in the region,” according to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. The original agreement was set to expire in 2010.
The timing of the renewed agreement coincides with the approaching end of President Tony Saca’s term on May 31. Saca, from the center-right ARENA party, is an ardent supporter of U.S.-Salvadoran military collaboration. However, in June of last year, President-elect Mauricio Funes, from the left-of-center FMLN opposition party, announced that he would guarantee the continuation of the Comalapa Forward Operating Location, contradicting the FMLN’s traditional stance against the FOL residing on Salvadoran territory.
Despite Funes’ previous announcement, the U.S. government likely hoped to extend the agreement before his inauguration just in case his position changes once he and the FMLN assume power in June. Though Funes has pledged to work closely with the United States, his political party began life as an insurgency that, during the 1980s, the U.S. government spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming the Salvadoran military in an effort to defeat. If relations should sour and Funes’s position on the Comalapa facility should change, U.S. officials no doubt calculated, they would be left with only one formal Forward Operating Location, in the Netherland Antilles, after Manta closes. Colombia has, however, agreed to accommodate the U.S. planes and crews that will be vacating Manta.