The U.S. military would run drug surveillance flights out of existing bases in El Salvador, Curacao, and Key West, Fla., if Ecuador refuses to renew a 10-year lease on an air base there, said Navy Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, during an April 21 trip to Peru. (Karel Navarro / The Associated Press)
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Ecuador's elected assembly strengthened the nation's promise to oust Manta Air Base, the Air Force's hub for spotting America-bound drug runs leaving South American shores.
The 130-member assembly passed a bill April 1 that would ban foreign military bases, though that constitutional change won't be ratified until later this year. President Rafael Correa, a figurehead in the leftist political movement sweeping Central and South America, has said Ecuador won't renew Manta's lease when it expires next year.
Radar-domed E-3 airborne warning and control system jets leave Manta each day to track speedboats suspected of trafficking narcotics, typically bundles of cocaine. More than 60 percent of drug captures in the eastern portion of the Pacific Ocean are owed to work done at Manta, according to the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador.
The U.S. Southern Command has no plans to relocate a Manta-like base in South America, according to Navy Adm. Adm. James Stavridis, chief of the command. Drug surveillance flights will continue from existing bases in El Salvador, Curacao and Key West, Fla., he said.
Though its geopolitical footprint is large, the Manta location itself hosts fewer than 20 full-time U.S. military personnel and about 200 crew members rotating in and out on weeks-long shifts.
Troops deployed to Manta have come from a hodgepodge of various squadrons and locations, including: the 474th Operations Group, which serves several Southern Command bases; Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona; Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma and others.
About 150 Ecuadorian nationals work at the Manta location.
When it comes to stopping cocaine traffic, the U.S.'s strongest ally remains Colombia. The Air Force still sprays coca-killing pesticides from planes over Colombian fields and aids a conflict against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist guerrilla army financed by the drug trade.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.