From 2000 to 2009, military spending in Ecuador spiked more than 240 percent to $1.8 billion in constant dollar terms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.This nation - better known for the Galapagos Islands and its banana exports - is not alone. Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Uruguay have also been bolstering their militaries over the past several years -albeit at much slower rates - but with budgets that dwarf Ecuador's.
Experts say it's too soon to talk about a regional arms race. But the trend is worrisome enough that it was the central issue of the 40th General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Peru last week.
During his inaugural speech to the OAS, Peruvian President Alan Garcia chastised member nations for buying into the "war hypothesis" that only made arms manufacturers rich as it robbed social programs.
"The cost of maintaining military bases in South America over the last five years has been $125 billion," he said. "With just 35 billion, we could give 10 million Latin American families drinking water, education and health care for the next 20 years."
While military expenditures worldwide are up 49 percent since 2000, military spending in the Americas was up 79 percent, according to the Stockholm institute.
Driving Ecuador's shopping spree is its contentious relationship with neighboring Colombia and that country's five-decade war against leftist guerrillas and drug gangs. With an annual military budget of $10 billion and U.S. military aid and support, Colombia's troubles have spilled over the border for years, sparking sporadic violence and flooding Ecuador with more than 40,000 refugees.
Since 2003, Ecuador has boosted troops along the Colombian border from 7,000 to 11,000, said Fredy Rivera, a foreign relations expert and military analyst with the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences.
"After we signed the peace deal with Peru in 1998, the country was hoping to scale back military spending and invest more in education and social programs," he said.
Indeed, Peru has cut its military expenditures slightly since 2000.
"Instead, Colombia made us vulnerable," Rivera added.
Tensions only escalated when Colombian troops crossed the border in 2008 to attack a clandestine camp of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas. That raid killed the group's No. 2, but it was a diplomatic disaster.
Angry that Colombia had not sought permission, Ecuador recalled its ambassador and President Rafael Correa green-lighted more than $300 million in military purchases, according to local reports. Among the items were 24 aircraft from Brazil, seven helicopters and six Israeli unmanned drones.
Venezuela, too, has been on an eyebrow-raising spending spree. The same day that the OAS discussed the issue, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced he was shelling out $82 million for Chinese-made jets.
The Lima Declaration, which the OAS approved at the Peru meeting, encourages members to limit arms purchases to "dedicate more resources to economic development."
But the document didn't address what some in Latin America see as the most pressing issue: the U.S. military presence in Colombia.
In 2009, Colombia signed a 10-year agreement that provides U.S. military access to seven bases. The United States has maintained that the installations are Colombian controlled and designed to keep a lid on the drug trade inside the country.
Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and others tried to force the issue into the Declaration of Lima, OAS officials said, but they were ultimately shot down.
OAS Assistant General Secretary Albert Ramdin acknowledged the military base issue was a thorny one. "This wasn't easy," he told The Miami Herald after the approval of the Declaration of Lima.
"This was a very sensitive issue both from a perspective of defense and security, as from the political side."