Date: Tue, 21 Jul 98 15:23:36 CDT
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: PANAMA-US: Controversy Rages over Canal Antidrugs Centre
Article: 39487
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: #&60;>

/** ips.english: 467.0 **/
** Topic: PANAMA-US: Controversy Rages over Canal Antidrugs Centre **
** Written 4:12 PM Jul 20, 1998 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Controversy Rages over Canal Antidrugs Centre

By Silvio Hernandez, IPS, 17 July 1998

PANAMA CITY, Jul 17 (IPS)—Controversy raged over plans to establish a US-Panamanian Mulitlateral Antidrugs Centre (MAC) in the Canal zone, as interested parties fanned the flames of disagreement in talks already suspended for two months.

Colombia's President Ernesto Samper speaking to Panamaninan daily Panama-America in Lisbon, said the creation of the MAC would be the best use for the military bases the United States will cede to Panama on December 31, 1999 under the 1977 canal treaties.

Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are all pendant on developments in negotations between Panama and the United States, said Samper.

These three Latin American nations have held unilateral talks with Panama with a view to joining the initiative when negotiations in Washington come to an end, but on the condition the MAC be run by civilians, sharing the information collected and respecting the sovereignty of each country.

Samper, who will be relieved of his leadership on August 17 by president-elect Andres Pastrana, said the MAC will also be useful for the tasks of maritime and air interception of narcotraffickers in the Caribbean and the Pacific zone of Colombia.

However, Samper spoke out against any other type of operations not linked to the war on drugs being handled from the MAC.

The United States, meanwhile, aims for troops stationed in the MAC will be able to carry out operations unrelated to drug trafficking in other countries of the region.

This and other points—like exactly how many US troops will be stationed in the MAC and the special status Washington has requested for these—have all contributed to the current stalemate.

The United States wants authorisation to ballot 2,500 members of army personnel in the MAC in order to launch humanitarian and rescue operations from there. They want legal immunity for the troops, and for the agreement to last 15 years, and not the three suggested by Panama.

Panama's President Ernesto Perez Balladares, who proposed establishing the MAC two years ago, reiterated his country would not accept the creation of any entity appearing to be simply a disguised military base.

Conservative chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, said last week Panama's refusal to accept the conditions requested by the US was an act of ill will.

If the government of Panama is disposed to negotiate with goodwill, our troops (in the MAC) must have a multipurpose capacity which would benefit both nations, said Helms.

The 4,500 US troops currently based in the five US bases along the banks of the Panama canal must withdraw from the nation on December 31, 1999, as established in the canal treaties.

Contrary to what Helms claims, former US ambassador to Panama, Everett Briggs said the military should not be taking a leading role in the war on drugs.

During a conference offered to US entrepreneurs based in the Central American nation Thursday, Briggs said he did not think military bases should be maintained as it is time Panama could feel proud to be a nation totally in its own right.

I fear the prolonging of US presence here, and I am a patriot, will undermine something (US withdrawal from the canal) which is already in process and is working very well. Panama deserves to be its own boss. The (canal) treaty is definitive, he added.

Briggs, current chair of the non-governmental Council of the Americas, descried the argument wielded by US officials, claiming US military presence in Panama guarantees investments.

The former diplomat said on the contrary, US military presence could be interpreted as a signal there are some problems in Panama. We have no troops in other countries of the region and there are massive investments there, he noted.

Briggs asked the business community to be sure the United States is doing everything within its power to control consumption within its territory, an element he considered the heart of the problem.

I am opposed to the certification system, which is denigrating for ourselves, he added.

Why isn't California decertified for its marihuana laws? Asked Briggs, after a plebiscite in the state allowed consumption of the drug for medicinal purposes.

The former diplomat finally concluded he was not sure the MAC will be the best way to combat drugs.