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Non-Panama Presence Hurts Drug Fight

July 29, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A retired Army general joined Thursday with House Republicans in warning that the phase-out of the U.S. military presence in Panama could be a boon to South American narcotraffickers.

``Panama is critical to counterdrug efforts,″ said retired Gen. George A. Joulwan, who once led all U.S. military operations in Latin America.

Testifying before the House International Relations Committee, Joulwon said losing the U.S. military infrastructure in Panama will affect the U.S. ability to prosecute the war on drugs.

Under the Panama Canal treaties, the United States has until the end of the year to terminate all military operations in Panama _ a process that is well under way.

Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., said the authors of the 1979 pact ``could not have foreseen neighboring Colombia’s drug-fueled agony, nor the sophistication of the drug cartels’ corrupting criminal reach.″

Gilman said it was a mistake for the United States to have put itself in the position of closing Howard Air Force Base, from which 15,000 military flights had taken off annually.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said Panama has no army, navy or air force with which to combat ``the well-armed narcoterrorist forces″ in Colombia.

In addition, he said the Panama Canal, instead of reverting to Panamanian control as prescribed under the treaties, ``is now in the hands of communist China,″ saying numerous entities with close ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army are very active in Panama.

With the closure of Howard AFB in May, the administration has been conducting counternarcotics surveillance flights from airfields in the Netherlands Antilles and also plans similar flights from Ecuador and a Central American country yet to be named.

Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., said the addition of these new sites for surveillance of drug flights more than compensates for the loss of Panama. He said official analyses show the locations will be able to handle up to 120 percent of the traffic that Panama had been handling.

Gilman called for approval of legislation he introduced last fall providing for the U.S.-Panamanian military partnership to continue in exchange for Panama’s joining with Mexico and Canada in forging a ``new, mature, mutually beneficial relationship″ with the United States.

But Ambassador Theodore McNamara recommended against such an effort, citing political conditions in Panama.

``The Panamanians need to see that we will fully implement the 1979 treaties, that we will completely leave the country without any intention of returning,″ he said.

McNamara tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an agreement in Panama that would have permitted U.S. counternarcotics activities there to continue after the turn of the century.

A large majority of the Panamanian people favored such action but were ignored by political elites who ``determine the outcome of important issues,″ he said.

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