El Salvador: Standing Tall

El Salvador: Standing Tall

GRP member aims his MP-5. (J. Montes)

The Marine looked sharp.  He was dressed in the new MARPAT green camouflage pattern, cut to the US M1967 jungle style and matched to a cover of the same material; he wore the Special Forces harness and carried the M4A4 Carbine.  The same standard was observed in the hands of elements of the DM4 from Comandos de Morazán and other troops.  This was definitely a leap forward from the rag-tag look observed only a few months before when President Mauricio Funes had ordered the military to the streets in an attempt to curb rising criminal activity.  In early September 2010, the government made associations with street gangs illegal.  Late in that same month, public transportation was severely disrupted for three days by a strike enforced by street gangs, angry at a new law.  President Mauricio Funes introduced the measure in July – a month after suspected members of the M-18 gang opened fire on a bus and set it afire killing 17 passengers.  With troops in the streets, the neglected state of the military apparatus became more than evident.  The soldiers started to patrol in decrepit vehicles while carrying worn out weapons.  

The 20,000 strong Salvadorian National Civilian Police (PNC) equipped with 1,500 semiautomatic Galil (AR & SAR models), received hundreds of SAF submachine guns from Chile.  The GRP and other elite police outfits received MP5s, over 200 HK-33A5 and HK53A5 rifles and hundreds of Colt M4A1 Carbines.  The Army transferred 700 T65 and hundreds of M16 rifles.  The military also indicated in 2005-2006 that they had large quantities (600+) of brand-new Argentinean FMK-3 SMGs, which after the war were dumped in storage.  In 2010, private security guards were observed carrying the machine pistol with them, but if still available, the FMK-3 could also be handed over to the police.  Regardless of the weapon’s dubious reputation, it is understood that with quality ammunition, the FMK-3 is a reliable weapon.

The U.S. began to replace the G3 rifles in the hands of the Salvadorian Army in 1981 with the delivery of 11,868 AR-15A1 R613 (M16A1); followed by another 20,743 M16s purchased with FMS funds for El Salvador in 1982.  Many of these “new” rifles were actually leftovers from Vietnam.  Eventually, another 45,160 AR-15A1 R613 followed, to include more than 500 CAR-15A1 R639 (XM177E2 Commando – typified as M16A2 for El Salvador) to equip the Mechanized Infantry and officer Corps and hundreds of CAR-15A1 R653 (M16A1) Carbines starting in 1985, and even brand-new M16s supplied by Springfield Armory.

Salvadorian Marine with brand-new Colt M4A1 Carbine, SF Harness (designed by General Gustavo Perdomo), and new MARPAT uniform. (Julio Montes)

The Army Special Forces (CFE) consists of some 1,200 elements of the CFE, distributed among the Parachutist Battalion (functioning as a Ranger unit), the Special Antiterrorist Commando (CEAT), the Naval Commandos, and the Special Operations Group (GOES – comprising the long range reconnaissance commando PRAL, and the attack commando HACHA).  Some 10 years ago, the government purchased 600 FNC-90-00 and FNC-92-00 Carbines to equip the parachute battalion while the GOES was equipped with M16A2 Carbines and M16A2 Commandos and M4 with Mil-Std 1913 sight rail and retractable stock.  CFE elements were the only ones to receive Model 700 (M24), M14 and Model 82A1 Barrett rifles and M249 SAW light machine guns.  In 2006 the Salvadorians purchased 500 Colt M16A4, and a number of HK-416 models for the CFE.  The M16A4 were followed by a $209,629 contract from TACOM with Colt in 2007 for more than 64,460 M4, and another one in 2008 for more M4A1 Carbines to be delivered to El Salvador under FMS.  These numbers appear a little high, but if that is the case, the better.  The weapons were part of a US $7 million donation for the Salvadorian participation in Iraq, and they came along with 21 M1151 and 4 M1165 up-armored Humvees, equipped with a shielded 360-degree gunner turret and brand-new M2HB.  With the arrival of the M4, the Para Battalion relinquished its FNC Carbines to the Military Police, replacing the MP5.

In excess of 1,142 M60 machine guns were delivered between 1981 and 1992, along with more than 100 M60Ds.  There is also a report that 600 M60 machine guns were acquired at $1 each when the U.S. was dumping the M60 for the new MAG M240 around 2000.  With so many M60s in inventory, El Salvador should not be requiring new fire support weapons for awhile.  No need to re-invent the wheel and the weapon can simply be overhauled and retrofitted/upgraded to M60E4/MK 43 with kits already available in the market.  With this simpler fashion it could become the machine gun of the “future” for El Salvador.

The military received 1,704 M79 and 1,423 M203 grenade launchers as well.  The M79 remains in service and is in need of a face-lift instead of looking into the new M320 model.  The original M79 butt-stock could be replaced with composite plastic furniture, which can be purchased from commercial sources.  A few years back Milkor, from South Africa, exchanged the original stock of the M79 for a swing-around model, a pistol grip was added, and a new OEG sight fitted.  More recently, the Defcom M79 has been mentioned, sporting a front hand guard manufactured from composite materials, top of barrel fitted with Mil-Std 1913 Picatinny rail system, detachable flip-up scale graduated to 425 meters rear sight, folding stock, M16 style pistol grip, and other improvements.

GRP Elements preparing to storm a position during training. (J. Montes)

In Turmoil Once More
A riot broke out in January, 2007 when inmates of the Apanteos Prison picked up makeshift weapons and started fighting each other.  Military and police support units had to be called to quell the revolt, while 21bodies lay in the courtyard in the most grotesque manner: stabbed, beheaded, dismembered and hung – and the pictures made the world.  In November 2010, another riot broke out inside the same prison, leaving two dead, and 28 injured.  At about the same time another revolt broke out at La Esperanza Jail (better known as Mariona) in San Salvador’s suburbs of Mejicanos, leaving 13 injured; and in Ilobasco jail, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of San Salvador, a fire left at least 16 inmates dead and 22 injured.

These are not your average prison inmates.  The country has 19 prisons with capacity for 8,110 inmates, but holds 23,840.  Some 7,300 are gang members.  According to some, the inmates hold complete arsenals hidden inside the jails.  Furthermore, the jails have been used as command and control centers by the gangs, using cells phones, couriers (visitors), and others to order hits and control their “soldiers” in their neighborhoods.

By 2011, more than 8,500 troops were involved in internal security duties, and 800 more were needed.  This time, the Army was no longer under the control of the police (PNC), operating under military operational commands instead: Zumpul, in charge with surveillance of 62 “blind-spots” at the border, and Zeus, charged with general preventive patrols.  The troops have been providing partial security unsuccessfully under the command of the PNC at least since 1997, deploying 2,500 soldiers and 14 Cashuats APC to the Joint Task Force Groups (GTC – Grupos de Tarea Conjunta) under the PNC in 1999.  In 2005, the government ordered 1,000 soldiers to the streets following the murder of two police officers outside a night club, and continued violence.

Under the third military operational command San Carlos the Army has taken perimeter security of prisons in Quezaltepeque (La Libertad), Cojutepeque (Cuscatlán), Ciudad Barrios (San Miguel), Izalco (Sonsonate), Chalatenango and San Francisco Gotera (Morazán) while motorized units equipped with M1151 Up-armored Humvees patrol the perimeter of “Zacatras,” the Maximum security prison at Zacatecoluca City (La Paz).  In November 2010, the Army took La Esperanza Prison, in the suburbs of San Salvador, and a month later, with the support from a couple of helicopters and two M1151 Humvees equipped with M2HB, 128 soldiers moved against Apanteos prison.  At the time, the jail – designed to hold only 1,800 of the most dangerous inmates – held almost 3,600, some 500 of them with affiliation to the M-18 gang.