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THE MIAMI HERALD
Puerto Rico becoming a military hub for U.S.
Forces for Latin region moving in from Panama
by Carol Rosenberg
July 6, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI
HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
ROOSEVELT ROADS, Puerto Rico -- Bivouacked behind barbed wire,
dwarfed by towers of shipping containers, the vanguard of a U.S.
Special Forces team is stealthily setting up shop at this naval
base in eastern Puerto Rico.
Their assignment: Establish communications, living quarters,
aircraft hangars and all the accommodations for an elite force
of Green Berets, Navy Seals, Marines and Air Force commandos.
So sensitive is their mission that Army Brig. Gen. Richard Parker
forbids public briefings on their work.
But the activity signals a significant shift for the Southern
Command, the U.S. military group responsible for 12.5 million
square miles from Antarctica to the Florida Keys.
While Miami may be Southcom's bureaucratic headquarters, Puerto
Rico, by design and by default, this summer becomes home to the
greatest concentration of U.S. military resources in Latin America.
''Puerto Rico will now assume the role that Panama has had
for Southern Command for about the last 50 years. Puerto Rico
will really become the hub of our operations,'' Southcom commander-in-chief
Charles E. Wilhelm, a Marine general, told Congress June 22.
Because Puerto Rico has 16,000 Army and Air Force reservists and
National Guard members, all bilingual, ''in a great many ways
this is an ideal marriage'' between Southcom and the island, Wilhelm
When U.S. forces lower the Stars and Stripes in Panama for
the last time Dec. 31, Puerto Rico will be the permanent home
to about 25,000 Department of Defense employees, Southcom spokesman
Raul Duany says. Mostly so-called citizen soldiers, in the reserves
and National Guard, they operate out of full- and part-time installations
that practically ring the island.
By contrast, 1,000 military and civilian personnel work at
Southcom. It moved to Miami from Panama 20 months ago under an
agreement to evacuate the Canal Zone.
Island gets new roles
Aside from Roosevelt Roads' longstanding role as a U.S. Navy
service station, three new key functions are being added to this
U.S. commonwealth that straddles the United States, the Caribbean
and Latin America:
Fort Buchanan, 35 miles to the west in a suburb of San Juan,
becomes home later this summer to the U.S. Army South, called
USARSO, a major command. A two-star general arrives next month
from Panama to take charge.
Workers at the once sleepy post are hammering new roofs on
palm-studded 1950s-era track housing in an area called ''Coconut
Grove'' that was once doomed by Congress for closure. When the
soldiers and their families finish moving here next month, the
post's forces will number 1,382, including civilians and reservists.
Southcom's Special Operations Command has taken over a corner
of this Navy base where hundreds of sailors already operate an
Atlantic Fleet support station. A Spanish-speaking rapid reaction
team, SOC-South can carry out anti-terror operations in Latin
America, train foreign forces and mobilize 10 Zodiac speedboats
and six Black Hawk helicopters to rescue hurricane victims.
Once its commander suspends parallel operations between Panama
and Puerto Rico, probably next month, 277 people from all four
services will be based here permanently.
Contractors are planting acres of 17-foot antennas and a receiver
station at Fort Allen in south-central Puerto Rico and at Vieques,
a small, mostly Navy-controlled island to the east. It is part
of an anti-drug effort to support 500-member U.S. teams in Curacao
and Aruba, and an airfield in Ecuador.
Called Over the Horizon Radar, this Cold War weapon was designed
to detect Soviet aircraft from Alaska. Its job in Puerto Rico
will be to detect aircraft in cocaine-producing jungles -- and
give fighter jets enough raw intelligence to intercept them.
If it works as it should, after a flick of the switch early
next year, ''on a good day, you can look to the edge of South
America,'' Duany said. Puerto Rico's share of the staffing will
number 40 civilian contractors.
Comparison to Panama
Compared to Panama, which in 1995 had 10,000 U.S. military
personnel, Puerto Rico will have a leaner permanent presence.
The retreat from Panama parallels the Pentagon's post-Cold
War philosophy, which cashiered tens of thousands of troops in
the past 10 years and moved more of the military into the continental
Besides, gone are the days when U.S. forces acted as advisors
to allies fighting communism in Central America.
In Latin America, only the 1,100-strong Navy and Marine outpost
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is engaged in traditional Cold War-era
Other U.S. forces in the region try to encourage democracy-building
through joint exercises with other armed forces. Through disaster
relief, they seek to bolster goodwill and prevent massive illegal
immigration to the United States. And they engage in counternarcotics
operations with the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department
of Transportation, not Defense.
Duany recently described drug trafficking to a San Juan Rotary
Club as ''the only weapon of mass destruction in the hemisphere.''
In the future, some of these programs will be supervised by
Southcom headquarters in Miami -- but carried out by planners
in Puerto Rico.
''In terms of impact, we have the U.S. Army South and SOC-South
here, which means that Puerto Rico is the biggest player in the
region,'' said retired Army Maj. Gen. Felix Santoni.
Santoni was deputy commander-in-chief for mobilization and
reserves at Southcom in the early 1990s. He had advocated that,
with the loss of Panama, Southcom be moved to Puerto Rico.
But, after studying 126 sites and 26 cities, the Pentagon picked
''Puerto Rico is in the AOR'' -- area of responsibility --
''which Miami is not,'' says Santoni, who now works for the government-run
tourism promotion agency.
He sees the relocation of Army South in particular as prestigious
for Puerto Rico. Latin American colonels and generals will come
here for table-top exercises and other exchanges, many on their
first visit to the island. Increased visibility could enhance
Puerto Ricans, though, appear mostly indifferent to their island's
shifting military status. Many have not heard about it.
The business community has been curious about what marketing
opportunities the arrival will bring. Veterans and reservists
-- about 180,000 on the island -- are excited about seeing Fort
Buchanan put to active-duty use.
Even the independence minority -- anti-military, pro-environment
-- has been too preoccupied with a sit-in on a decades-old bombing
range at nearby Vieques to protest the changes at Fort Buchanan
and Roosevelt Roads. Civilian guard David Sanes, 35, was killed
April 19 when a Marine F-18 aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs
off target -- and hit his watchtower.
U.S. forces first arrived on the island in the Spanish-American
War in 1898; the Navy built Roosevelt Roads in the 1940s as a
strategic refueling and mechanical stop for its ships.
Of Southcom's decision to move troops from Panama to Puerto
Rico, the Independence Party's Manuel Rodriguez Orellana said:
''This is why the United States invaded Puerto Rico, to make it
a miliary base. . . . This is a military colony. Any talk of self-determination
under these conditions is hogwash.''
In all, 13 percent of the island's ''best arable lands'' are
owned by the federal government and used by the military, said
Rodriguez Orellana, a law professor.
Countered advertising executive Efren Pagan, who seeks to create
a special marketing relationship between the U.S. military and
Sears in San Juan:
''We don't see them as foreigners. We see them as security.
We see them as another force that, you know, is looking for the
good environment of our community. These people have a job as
Relief after hurricane
Any doubts Pagan had about the efficacy of having U.S. forces
around were erased, he said, after Hurricane Georges ravaged the
island last year. Within days, military forces swept through to
clear impassable streets and restore services.
Financially, he said, it can't help but add dollars to Puerto
Rico's economy. Joblessness is about 14 percent, compared with
4.1 percent nationally.
At Fort Buchanan, a 700-acre site, soldiers and private contractors
are engaging in a $161 million renovation and construction project.
It includes new command headquarters, an intelligence center and
operations and communications buildings, as well as an aquatic
park, nine-hole golf course, bowling alley, gym and social hall.
It is breathing new life into a base that had taken on the
feel of a ghost town, especially since Congress put the housing
portion on the ''BRAC'' list, dooming it to closure. Fort Buchanan
had served mostly as a reserve center and housed a huge commissary
for veterans and reservists from across the island.
''USARSO is here. They're coming. It's not going to be stopped,''
said Army Col. Peter Gustaitis II, who is preparing the post for
Army Maj. Gen. Phillip Kensinger, who comes from Panama this summer.
''Now the question is: How do we turn Fort Buchanan into the showpiece
of the army... modernize it?''
Under an Army Corps of Engineers design, Gustaitis is supervising
the building of a 75-room guest quarters, complete with high-tech
communications, and preparing housing for 215 of the 261 active-duty
officers moving here from Panama with their spouses and children.
Contractors meantime are laying fiber optics for a hurricane-proof
"Reach out and touch"
By having both tactical units and administration in Puerto
Rico, said Gustaitis, a veteran of Bosnian peacekeeping, the Army
is maintaining ''that reach-out-and-touch ability'' into Latin
In contrast, the Special Forces operation at the 30,000-acre
Roosevelt Roads base is a secretive affair, more reminiscent of
the U.S. forces that functioned in Latin America in the 1980s.
Parker, a one-star general, has slapped a gag order on any
discussion of the move with the press or public. Instead, he has
left it to Southcom's public affairs office in Miami to describe
Consisting mostly of elite forces in their mid-30s, they are
Spanish-speakers who are trained in anti-terror tactics, and who
have participated in demining in Central America, peacekeeping
between Ecuador and Peru, and anti-drug operations across the
''I really don't know what they're going to do here,'' said
Bob Nelson, a civilian spokesman at Roosevelt Roads who works
for the Navy, which provides the commandos with basic housing
and quality-of-life services -- such as emptying their trash and
maintaining their helicopter hangar.
Nelson said the Special Forces have been working on base for
four months, pitching tents, moving helicopters into hangars and
supervising a contingent of Navy Seals who are renovating their
Also under renovation, Nelson said, is Gen. Parker's 2,240-square-foot
house and car park.
The tab: $22,000, before some hurricane repairs.