U.S. gunboats, sinking of ships rankle Ecuadoreans

  MANTA, Ecuador -- American counterterrorism officials have set up a high-seas gantlet deploying Coast Guard cutters off Latin American coasts and arresting foreign nationals trying to leave their own countries.
  Off the coast of Ecuador alone, Coast Guard crews have blocked at least 37 boats and detained more than 4,575 suspected illegal migrants during the past four years, records show. During the past two years, they have sunk a dozen emptied migrant boats that they deemed "unseaworthy" -- setting them ablaze and firing their .50-caliber machine guns into them.
  The interdiction effort fits into a new worldwide strategy that Department of Homeland Security officials describe as "pushing our borders out." Enforcing U.S. laws abroad is crucial, they contend, to control illegal immigration, estimated at 500,000 people a year, and close security gaps terrorists could exploit.
  "The president has authority to secure the borders of the United States," said Lt. Cmdr. Brad Kieserman, operations legal chief at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.
  That means not only off Ecuador but "anywhere in the world," Kieserman said. Coast Guard and Navy ships will "go to the source of transnational crime and interdict it before it gets to the United States," he said.
  U.S. foreign-policy experts warn that effective world policing means balancing benefits with backlash. A new bitterness pulses through the streets of this Ecuadorean port city, where centuries-old fishing culture fuses with the business of smuggling people north.
  Coast Guard commanders "at least should have brought my boat back here and put it in the hands of Ecuadorean authorities," said Segundo Moreiro-Vegos, 41, owner of the 70-foot Diego Armando, which was sunk Feb. 22. He said he didn't know when he rented it for fishing that smugglers would cram on 103 migrants.
  The United States sinks boats "to show the power they have to stop migrants, to show the other fishermen not to (get involved). ... They board with machine guns, put everyone on the floor, tie hands," Moreiro-Vegos said.
  "Before, I was feeling good about American people being down here. Now, I don't want to see them. We suffer so much because of these people," he added.
  Some analysts see this as contemporary gunboat diplomacy. If foreign armed forces stopped U.S. boats in this way, "we'd call it an act of war," said John Pike, director of the centrist Washington think tank Global Security. "There is no world government to enforce international law. It's always been the case that the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must."
  Others say U.S. officials are pushing too far, straining the already-thin good will and support that the United States needs to fight terrorism, the illegal spread of weapons and other threats.
  "To have U.S. ships off the coast of Ecuador sinking boats is not the best public relations for the United States," said Robert Leiken, director of immigration and security studies at the bipartisan Nixon Center think tank in Washington.
  If stopping illegal immigration is the goal, cracking down on U.S. employers who hire illegal workers would be far more effective, Leiken said.
  "Basically, we have one continent which is so far not penetrated by Islam; there's very little Muslim radicalism in Latin America," he said. "I'd think we'd want these people on our side.
  "We're going to need people from Ecuador, El Salvador and other countries. To have anti-Americanism whipped up for what seem to be extraneous, unnecessary reasons ... I'm not so sure this is the way to be aggressive.
  "As long as we aren't willing to close our own internal border by pursuing interior enforcement, how can we go out into other countries?"
  U.S. courts have affirmed a right to enforce U.S. laws abroad if crimes affect the United States.
Neither the United States nor Ecuador has signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea that would provide a forum for hashing out disputes.

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