Machine Gun Armored Patrol Carriers in Central America

Machine Gun Armored Patrol Carriers in Central America


ABOVE: In El Salvador, the AML-90 was relegated to perform security escort to artillery units, with an UR-416 traveling alongside — not with mechanized infantry, but with additional rounds, and providing additional security with its machine gun. (J. Montes)

The phrase auto-ametralladora in Spanish does not refers to the obvious automatic machine gun, but it is a direct translation of the French “Auto Mitrailleuse Légère”, translated to “Light Machine Gun Car” (LMGC), and referring to a light-armored machine-gun carrier. The French denomination was actually applied to their AML (for short) Type-245, a vehicle designed and developed to replace the Daimler Ferret, for service mainly in Africa. In Spanish, the term is broader, and usually refers to any compact lightly armored “self-propelled” machine gun platform. The Daimler Ferret had been developed itself as a replacement of the WW-II Dingo, and both British-designed vehicles fit the original concept of the LMGC.

However, the term in Central America represents more a concept than a reality since the local armies have lacked a truly compact mobile lightly armored machine gun platform, other than using armored personnel carriers in this form. Actually, none of the countries in Central America really counted with a light machine gun car as such until the British deployed Daimler Ferrets to Belize in 1973.

The British Army had a presence in that Central American nation from the late 1940s until 1994. The old British-Honduras colony had been formally and permanently established in the late 1870s, after the British Honduras Company became the predominant landowner and emerged as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, cementing its dependency with Britain. Although independence finally came in 1981, Belize was at the time facing a potential invasion from its northern neighboring country. Guatemala claimed the entire territory (since 1859), and repeatedly threatened to use force to take over the British enclave. In the 1945 Constitution, Guatemala claimed the territory as the 23rd department, and three years later it deployed troops along the border. The UK responded by deploying two companies from the 2nd Gloucestershire Regiment. Nine years later, a company from the Worcesteshire Regiment was moved to the border, but again, the Guatemalans did not invade. Several months later, a British platoon exchanged gunfire with a group calling themselves the Belize Liberation Army, and managing to capture 20 suspects. In 1972, Guatemala threatened to invade once again, so the British garrison was beefed up, deploying 8000 troops, and several ships, to include an aircraft carrier. When talks broke off again in 1975, tension flared and the UK deployed troops, a battery of 105mm field guns, a few 40mm Bofors, and Rapier missiles systems, six Harriers, and a frigate. Among the reinforcements came several Ferrets to provide for airport perimeter defense, security and patrol.

Salvadorian APV have been issued to the EMCFA (Armed Forces HQ) Security Battalions, and they could be carrying USOR M60DE4 with enhanced features (J. Montes)

The UK had relinquished most political control to the locals from 1964, and retained only defense, foreign affairs, internal security and some other internal affairs. In June 1973 the colony became known as Belize, and in 1975 it moved to grant independence, only to be prevented by Guatemalan gestures and treats. Tension flared once again two years later. Belize finally became independent in 1981, but the British Forces in Belize remained until 1994.

Between 1977 until the departure of the UK forces, the British Army deployed in two infantry battle groups (South and North)(1). The main barracks, and home of the Headquarters British Forces Belize, was located at Airport Camp (APC), adjacent to the International Airport. Here, the UK maintained the Harriers, and a flight of Puma helicopters, while rotating squadrons from 3 RAF Regiment provided for defense, manning the Rapier systems and L40/70 Bofors. Elements of the Royal Armored Corps (RAC) and Royal Artillery Regiment (RAR) were based at Holdfast Camp, near Cayo district, capital of San Ignacio (2). It is understood that the RAC deployed only tracked Scimitar/ Scorpion CVR(T), so the Daimler Ferrets observed guarding Airport Camp appear to have come with 3 RAF Regiment; these were likely to be Mk 2/3 models, sporting the typical hand-operated turret. This sported a Browning L3A2 machine gun (Commonwealth designation for the M1919A4), with 2,500 rounds of ammunition. The weapon could be elevated between -15 degrees and +45 degrees and the turret having a full 360 degree traverse.

The tiny FV701 (Ferret) was a 4×4 compact armored light gun car, measuring a mere 3.835metres in length, 1.905m in width and 1.448m in height, and with a combat weight of just 4,210kg (in its Mk1/1 variant). The first prototype was produced in 1949 by the Coventry-based Daimler Company, and production started in 1952. Its all-welded armored shell protected against small arms fire and splinters, and it mounted a Rolls-Royce B60 Mk6A, six-cylinder in-line water-cooled gas engine. This engine developed 130hp, providing for a speed of up to 93km per hour. The mentioned Mk1/1 was open-topped design, usually armed with a Bren light machine gun, with 450 rounds. The Mk1/2 variant (FV704) was somewhat heavier, and the vehicle evolved up to the Mk5 variant, armed with the Swingfire wire-guided anti-tank missiles. The Ferret was fast and small, appropriate for urban environment, and also strong to operate off road, having a combat weigh of some 3.7 tons, and an armored hull with a thickness between 6 mm to 30 mm.

Learning how to use the J8 APV in Guatemala (US DoD Kaye Richey)

AML with British Legacy

After the 1969 war, the Salvadorian Army had been preparing to fight a conventional war with Honduras. Therefore, around 1979, it received some 12 vehículos ligeros auto-ametralladoras, in the form of the Panhard AML-245. Unfortunately, these were of the H-90 variant, which do not really fit the definition of machine gun carriers since they are equipped with the GIAT Industries’ smoothbore, low-velocity 90 mm D 921 F1 gun. The cannon fires HEAT, HE, smoke and canister rounds. There is also a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun to the left of the main armament. The turret has a full 360 degree traverse, and the gun can be elevated between -8 to +15 degrees, but has space for only twenty 90mm projectiles, compared to 56 mortar rounds that could had been accommodated in the 60H/HE variant. In El Salvador it was relegated to perform security escort to artillery units, with an UR-416 travelling alongside — not with mechanized infantry, but with additional rounds, and providing additional security with its machine gun. Mechanically, the AML-H90 proved difficult to maintain, and at least six were out of service by 1988. It was fitted with coil spring suspension and drum brakes, lacking hydraulic assist on either brakes or steering. Its Panhard Model 4 HD air-cooled 90hp gas engine proved weak, and was a constant concern. When actually working, the vehicle could develop up to 90 Km/h, and had a range of 600km. Its combat weight was 5.5 tons. Its hull was all-welded armor, with a thickness between 8 mm and 12 mm. Two were destroyed by the FMLN guerrillas, one with RPG fire and another one with an IED that pulverized it.

The AML was produced with a turret equipped with a 60 mm breech loading mortar and 7.62 mm and/or 12.7 mm machine guns (AML-60 and 60HE), and two 20 mm cannons (AML 60 S530). The 90 mm gun had been chosen to fight the Honduras’ Saladins, not to fight a counter-insurgency war developing in El Salvador. As it came to be, a machine gun armed AML would had been a lot more useful than the H90 variant to operate in the narrow urban streets or the narrow roads of the Salvadorian environment, where the length of the cannon proved a disadvantage, and where a solid shot of its gun proved of little use against elusive guerrillas. The Salvadorian Army would realize that what it needed was a vehicle capable to fight short and sharp skirmishes, fast and agile –and more in line of the Light Gun Car concept–than the clumsy and unreliable gun carrier.

The tiny Ferret, as those deployed in Belize by the British, with its small turret equipped with a Browning L3A2 machine gun (J.Montes)

Ironically, the AML has its origins in the mentioned Ferret. As it happens, the French Army had also found the FV701 a useful tool in Africa as a liaison, reconnaissance, patrol and support vehicle. They had employed some 200 Ferrets in Algeria, and wanted to place the British design in production under license. However, the French industry lobbied to build its own version of the Ferret, with superior firepower. Panhard built a prototype in 1959 and entered in production in 1960, and with the first models, equipped with a breech loaded 60mm Brandt mortar and two MAS AA-52 NF-1 machine guns, reaching troops in Algiers a year later.

The RPG damaged AML is preserved at the Salvadorian Military Museum. The Army CIDET (Research and Development center) has introduced an upgrade program, adapting Nissan diesel engines, but mentioning that there are only 9 hulls available to the upgrade, to include the hull at the Military Museum. This would indicate that there are two hulls unaccounted for. In any case, ideally, the H90 would be replaced with a turret similar to the one developed by the CIDET VCTA2, with a combination of machine guns and HS-404 20mm cannon(s). The redundant H90 turrets, and any other that can be obtained, could then be place2d on the VCTA2. This would bring back the Panhard H90 more in line with the light machine
gun car concept.

Another alternative would be to seek excess stocks from the Irish AML fleet, which was retired in 2013. The Irish incorporated 20 AML-H90 and 16 AML H60-7HB in 1975, followed by another 16 AML H60-7CS. In 1999 all 20 H90 and 16 H60-7 were overhauled and repowered with turbocharged diesel engines. Those H60-7 had their turret replaced by the two-man Ratel-20 turret. This is equipped with a South African made GI-2 (licensed GIAT) 20 mm cannon with a coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun. The 20mm cannon has an effective range of 1,500 m. These vehicles are designated AML-20.

Firing a M1919A6 from the J8 APV in Guatemala (U.S. Army photo by Kaye Richey)

The APV arrives

The Salvadorian Maestranza (Military Workshop) did modified a CJ-8 jeep in the mid-1980s. The prototype was used as a test bed before production could be implemented. A turret was placed on the bed. This was a one-man mechanically assisted model, equipped with a M2HB machine gun. Front, rear and side plates were mounted on a lightly modified Jeep. The turret was later used as basis for the Cashuat APC, but the vehicle proved unreliable, and it constantly overheated. Only a prototype was ever built which was later transferred to the DM-1 in Chalatenango to be used for short distance road patrol. Ideally, the Salvadorian military could had acquired surplus Ferrets to upgrade and deploy.

In 2013, the US announced the supply of 42 J8 APVs to equip a new armored battalion assigned to the Tecún Uman Task Force. Another 8 APVs arrived in 2014 to supply the FIAAT (Fuerza de Tarea de Interdicción Aérea, Antinarcótica y Antiterrorista), another Guatemalan Task Force composed of Huey-II helicopters, soldiers, police and a token armored platoon. Even more followed to equip other forces, and the US delivered additional APVs to El Salvador, to the Honduras’ new Public Order Military Police (PMOP), and the Panamanian Border National Service (SENAFRONT).

The APV variant refers to the armored patrol vehicle equipped with a hot formed ballistic steel body into a J8 frame. Actually, according to JGMS, the original J8 body is replaced with an armored cell, which level of protection is certified by Germany’s Beschussamt to BRV 2009/VR7 (ballistic) and ERV 2010 (blast). The armored cell provides ballistic protection to the underbody, roof and side blast.  The overtly armored variant is ideal for military and peacekeeping missions. JGMS indicates that the entire body of the J8 is replaced with hot-formed ballistic steel shaped to the precise contours of the original vehicle. The vehicle has a VM 2.8 L (2,766 cc) V4, direct injection, common rail, turbo-charged, intercooled diesel engine Bore and Stroke 94 x 100 Max Power 145 kw (194 bhp) @ 3,800 rpm. The APV fills exactly the concept of the machine gun armored patrol carrier.

The GIAT turret from the Salvadorian AML-H90 could be replaced with a CIDET VCTA2 variant - with a combination of machine guns and HS-404 20mm cannon(s) – to bring it back to the light machine gun car concept. (J. Montes)

Finally the Central Americans can fill the requirement for a fast, agile, and lightly armored vehicle that can provide liaison, reconnaissance, patrol, and security. The Guatemalan APV mounts a M1919 machine gun. The most common Browning observed in the new APVs has been the elderly, but superb, M1919A6 model, without the stock, and with its typical muzzle booster; those mounted on the APVs have their bipod removed. It is a heavy weapon (32 lbs – 15Kg), but highly reliable. Other models have been observed with the M1919A4 version, distinguished by the lighter barrel (as the M1919A6), but without the muzzle break. The Guatemalan Brownings are said to have been converted to 7.62×51 mm, either by the local War Material Service, with kits provided by Israel, or are actually modified Mk 21 Mod2 0 (ex-U Navy) models. The Mk 21 Mod 0 have the barrel, bolt, and feed cover are replaced and a chamber bushing, a link-stripper, and a second belt-holding pawl are added. However, the Guatemalan variants lack the six-inch flash hider typical of these variants.

The Salvadorian APV sports a M60D, which is the basic M60 GPMG, modified with spade grips. It is mounted on a pintle mount found on the ring base of a basic turret. The gunner can swivel the gun in a front arc of fire, and a 50-round ammo can is normally mounted with it. The gun is fired manually at up to 550 rounds per minute. US Ordnance offers an enhanced model, brought up to M60E4/Mk43 standards. USORD indicates that the M60D Enhanced “features a redesigned machined aluminum feed cover with integrated M1913 Picatinny rail for mounting optics aiming lasers and accessories. Another forward M1913 Picatinny rail allow additional accessories. It comes with ambidextrous safety features, and all major components directly interchange with other M60 configurations.” It is known that the US has supplied new M2HB models to the Salvadorian Army, but it is unknown if M60D Enhanced models have been supplied as well. On this mark, the Salvadorian military suffered a setback in June 2014, when four M60Ds were stolen from the Cavalry Regiment armory.

Honduras has supplied its APV to the new Public Order Military Police. They normally mount a MAG-58 on the APV, although M60 GPMGs are also available. The Panamanian SENAFRONT, the border police, uses an RPD to arm its APVs. This is a 7.62 x 39 mm light machine gun, normally used as squad automatic weapon. It uses a long stroke piston system and locking system proper of the Degtyaryov. It has a fixed barrel, and folding bipod. It feeds from the left-hand, and it normally is equipped with a 100-round drum magazine.

The J8 APV in detail. (J. Montes)

Need for light machine gun car patrols

In May 2011 Guatemala was shaken by the discovery of 26 decapitated bodies on a cattle ranch in the northern Petén region. The reports spoke of dozens of armed commandos storming the ranch, looking for owner Otto Salguero. These were elements of Mexican drugs cartels who searched for Salguero to seek revenge. Before this, the government acknowledged finding the chopped body of Allan Stowlinsky, Assistant District Attorney, assassinated for his participation in seizing 500 kg of cocaine in Alta Verapaz, a stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel in Guatemala. A year earlier, Los Zetas had invaded in force Peten, when some 80 elements of the Mexican drug cartel, riding on armored pickups and SUVs entered the villages of El Chal, Sabanetas, and Grano de Oro; from there, they moved to Caoba, a crossroad with the Tikal Highway, where they clashed with a police roadblock, injuring a soldier and destroying five police cruisers and a military vehicle. As the narcos retreated, Army patrols found a Toyota pickup and an armored Mitsubishi abandoned about 1 Km from the first encounter, along with assault rifles, ammunition and communication gear. Within days, authorities had seized 6 vehicles. The narcos had come from Belize all the way to El Naranjo, towards México manning some 15 vehicles.

Los Zetas had moved deep into Guatemala since 2007, establishing strongholds in Nentón, San Mateo Ixtatán, and Coatán Barillas. Then into Cobán, Alta Verapaz. A year later they had strongholds in Guatemala City and Chiquimula and Zacapa, where they clashed with los Lorenzana, associated with the Sinaloa Cartel. They have been known to operate from Huehuetenango, with a stronghold at La Democracia, south from Santa Ana Huista. In 2009, a military training camp was discovered in Quiché, followed by the discovery of a drug warehouse in Amatitlán. The breakup between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas in 2010 shows the path to the cartel conquering Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (3). After the gruesome findings, the Guatemalan government ordered the State of Siege, and the Army moved into Alta and Baja Verapaz. Pictures of the confiscated arsenal included dozens MG 34 machine guns. In Coban City alone, the seizures netted 45 vehicles, 35 pistols, 39 assault rifles, and 23 MG 34 (4). Yes, the legendary Mashinengewehr 34 from WWII. Guatemala received hundreds of these weapons in the 1950s from then Czechoslovakia.

The J8 APV has been supplied to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama (J. Montes)

In June 2012, the Army deployed a new Jungle Special Ops Brigade in Peten, and US military aid poured in to establish Inter-agency Task Forces along the borders, in addition to some 200 US Marines. The Jungle Brigade started operations from Subín, at La Libertad municipality, Petén, and was tasked with the patrol of the 345 kms border with Mexico. The Brigade nucleus is a 500-strong Jungle battalion operating specifically from San Andrés, San Francisco, La Libertad, Las Cruces and Sayaxché, along with being tasked with the protection of the Tigre Lagoon Park. The remaining two 500-strong battalions are formed with Kaibiles, and additional support comes from the 1400-strong 1st Infantry Brigade, and so the Guatemalan Army increased from some 16,000 soldiers to 23,000. In El Salvador, 6500 soldiers deployed to internal security duties, and in Honduras, the new 5000-strong Public Order Military Police has been organizing and deploying.

In June 2014, Guatemalan authorities confiscated in a single raid USD $1.8 million and 22 Kgs of cocaine, at San Pedro, municipality of El Naranjo, Petén. These overtly open and daring confrontations explain the need for the light armored machine gun carriers. The fight against the drug trade is far from over.