QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador has ordered the U.S. Embassy's military group, about 20 Defense Department employees, to leave the country by month's end, in a further indication of strained relations.
The group was ordered to halt operations in Ecuador in a letter dated April 7, the U.S. Embassy confirmed Friday. Late Friday afternoon, Ecuador's embassy in Washington issued a statement saying the "scaling back" of the U.S. military presence reflected the country's "improved political stability" and "increased internal security and defense capacities."
The shuttering of the U.S. Embassy's "Security Cooperation Office" was first reported by The Associated Press overnight after it was alerted by a senior Ecuadorean official. That official refused to be identified by name due to the information's sensitive nature.
The closing of the military group office does not affect the U.S. military attache's office, the U.S. Southern Command and the Ecuadorean statement said. As there is no accusation of espionage, U.S reciprocation is not anticipated.
In January, President Rafael Correa publicly complained that Washington had too many military officers in Ecuador, claiming there were 50, and said they had been "infiltrated in all sectors." At the time, he said he planned to order some to leave.
Correa was in Spain on Friday, headed later to Italy, and made no public comment about the issue. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino also was in Europe, a ministry official said, saying only Patino could comment.
Shortly after taking office in 2007, Correa purged Ecuador's military of officers deemed to have close relations with U.S. counterparts. He also ended an agreement with Washington that allowed U.S. drug interdiction flights to be based at the Ecuadorean airfield in Manta.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeffrey Weinshenker told the AP on Thursday that the military group being expelled has 20 Defense Department employees, not all uniformed. Weinshenker said Washington provided $7 million in security assistance to Ecuador last year. Building relationships with counterparts in partner nations' militaries is a big part of such missions, particularly as U.S. commercial influence ebbs in the region. Ecuador, an OPEC member, has leaned on China in recent years for financial support.
A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, Jose Ruiz, expressed regret. "Though we respect Ecuador's sovereign right to terminate cooperation programs, we regret that the outcome will severely limit our bilateral security partnership," he said in an email. He credited four decades of close cooperation for "significant advances against drug trafficking, human trafficking, terrorism and transnational crime.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also called Ecuador's decision "unfortunate" but said in Washington, "We respect their decision. I would point you to them on their reasoning." Ecuador's embassy in Washington, in a statement emailed to the AP and published on its website, said it has greatly increased counter-narcotics efforts and now spends "the greatest percentage of GDP on such efforts out of all South American countries."
U.S. relations with the Correa government suffered strains even before Correa provided asylum in 2012 to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose organization published troves of leaked U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables highly embarrassing to Washington.
Correa accused Washington, a close ally of neighboring Colombia, of meddling in Ecuador's military and police and was incensed after Colombian launched a cross-border raid into his territory in 2008 to kill a senior Colombian rebel commander.
Correa has since expelled at least three U.S. diplomats, including then Ambassador Heather Hodges in 2011. Hodges was the victim of a cable divulged by WikiLeaks that suggested Correa was aware of high-level police corruption and did not act on it.
In November, Correa's government said it was asking the U.S. Agency for International Development to end operations in the country, accusing it of backing the opposition. USAID is to end operations in September when programs it is funding have run their course. Ecuador's leftist ally Bolivia expelled USAID last year.
Correa is popular at home for his poverty-fighting programs but widely criticized for stifling civil liberties and using criminal defamation law against journalists.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.