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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 said.

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 United States.

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 activities.

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.''

Southcom supervision

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 Miami.

''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 tourism.

Puerto Ricans, though, appear mostly indifferent to their island's shifting military status. Many have not heard about it.

Business opportunities

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 anyone else.''

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 communications center.

"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 America.

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 his operation:

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 region.

''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 headquarters.

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.

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