By Julio A. Montes
Established on June 16, 1993, under Executive Decree No.65, the Salvadoran Military Museum is located at the old El Zapote Fort (10 Avenida Sur and Calle Alberto Sánchez) in San Jacinto, San Salvador. El Zapote fortress’ physical appearance is impressive, by regional standards, and it’s linked to the development of the Salvadoran artillery corps. At one point, the museum’s collection included fourteen exhibition rooms and two interactive areas and duly had a rich collection. In addition, it had an extensive football field that doubled as parade ground. However, a few years ago, the exhibits were moved within the walls of the fort, and the museum went down the hill, with few exhibits remaining open to the public, in poorly lighted and unkept rooms, and relying more on pictures of different leaders with no relevant information about them. El Zapote Museum became a shadow of what it once was, and it did little to preserve the proud Salvadoran military heritage.
Things finally appear to be changing again for the better. Within the last year, the Salvadoran presidency has been using the installations for a number of functions that have highlighted the museum, and now there is an awesome parade ground with manicured gardens and spaces leading to the old presidential offices, which also function as part of the cultural space, with tours offered of the Oval Hall, Hall of Honor, Dr. José Matías Delgado Hall, Official Office Hall, Gerardo Barrios Hall, Juan Manuel Rodríguez Hall and General Manuel José Arce Room or “Blue Room.” In August 2018, the government initiated a three-stage project to convert and revitalize the cultural spaces of the San Jacinto neighborhood in the center of San Salvador, with an investment of $22 million, and the first stage was completed in February 2019. However, it has been only within the last few months that a number of exhibits have been reopened and/or relocated, making them accessible to the public. Unfortunately, and as explained later, some items have been lost forever.
In contrast, the Honduran Military Museum Francisco Morazán is located into a much more confined physical space. It occupies the old San Francisco Fort in front of Valle Park in downtown Tegucigalpa, maximizing its space and having well-lit rooms, and patios with weapons featuring basic explanation cards. The museum was reconditioned and reopened to the public in May 2017, with nine exhibits and several static displays.
One of the most important exhibits is dedicated to the Salvadoran invasion of July 1969. This includes a video presentation of the crisis, and… a distortion of some historical events. The exhibit claims the Salvadoran front collapsed after Honduran forces were able to execute a counteroffensive on July 16, 1969 along the Southern Operational Theater (or “TOS” in Spanish), and after execution of a deadly ambush executed around San Rafael las Mataras farm on July 17, 1969, in the South Western Theater of Operations (or TOSO in Spanish).
The truth is that the Salvadoran front did not collapse, and, in fact, held-on to occupied territory until August 3, 1969. Nevertheless, both actions deserve their rightful merit. The Honduran counteroffensive of July 16, 1969, stalled the Salvadoran Army advance, but failed in dislodging it. The ambush at las Mataras, El Portillo area cost the Salvadoran forces the initiative at a considerable loss of life and equipment. However, the presentation overestimates the results since it also failed to collapse the Salvadoran forces. After the ambush, the Salvadoran National Guard was able to basically cut off and isolate the Honduran forces at El Portillo, prompting the deployment of the Honduran II (MAP) Infantry Battalion to Llano Largo in an attempt to encircle the Salvadoran National Guard. This experience at the San Francisco Museum motivated me to write Battleground – the Honduran and Salvadoran border conflict 1967 – 1980.
BLUE SKY OPERATION
Very little has been said about the ground actions that took place during the Salvadoran incursion into Honduras between July 14 and August 3, 1969. The conflict became known incorrectly as the “Football War”, focusing on the period between June and July of that year. However, the situation along the border had reached the boiling point much earlier.
On May 29, 1967, a Salvadoran National Guard patrol was ambushed at the border area of Monteca, Salvadoran territory, by a Honduran Army unit. As a response, the Salvadoran National Guard reinforced its bases in Chalatenango and Morazán, and other border points, while the Army mobilized its two MAP battalions, the 1st Battalion from Sonsonate and the 3rd Battalion from San Miguel, to the border on June 4, 1967. The following day, a four-truck military convoy from the Salvadoran 1st Regiment/1st Battalion/1st Brigade stumbled into the Honduran city of New Ocotepeque, where a single Honduran police officer detained it. The load included VZ-24 rifles, up to 15 Madsen machine guns and four Madsen 51mm mortars, along with their ammunition. After this event, the tension somewhat subsided and in 1968 there was a prisoner exchange, with Honduras returning the two officers, two national guardsmen, and more than 40 soldiers for the return of one convicted individual related to the Honduran strongmen at the time, General Lopez Arellano.
There were twelve major armed clashes reported along the border between May 1967 and June 1969. This situation culminated in the Salvadoran invasion on July 15, 1969, and a short, but deadly engagement that lasted some 120 hours. The Salvadoran raid was codenamed operation “Clear Sky” and relied in the Gerardo Barrios Campaign Plan developed in 1967. It would take two cease fires, one on July 18, 1969, and the other one on July 23, 1976, before a peace treaty was finally signed on July 20, 1980. The aftermath of this engagement led to the evolution and rearmament of both armies and contributed to the revolutionary conflict that develop in a reduced form in Honduras, and in full-scale infighting in El Salvador.
MILITARY MEMORY LAPSE
By 1969, the Central American armies had ordered their first assault rifles, and Honduras had asked for 2500 M14 rifles from the U.S. On July 17, 1969, the Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy, published the picture of POW Eugenio Hernández from the Honduran I (MAP) Infantry Battalion stating that he had been captured with a T-57 rifle. As the picture shows the barrel of a Mauser rifle, some speculated that the T-57 refers to Honduras’s designation for the Mauser. Given that the Salvadoran Army used the Mauser, as well, it seems odd that the news made particular mention of the rifle as the T-57. It is noted that T-57 normally refers to Taiwan’s version of the M14. In 1967 the U.S. sold Springfield’s M14 production tooling and assembly lines to Taiwan, and in 1968, the Republic of China State Arsenal began production of the rifle under the designation Type 57 (T-57). It is noted that in the aftermath of the Salvadoran invasion, the M14, and perhaps its twin model, the T-57 made in Taiwan, became the standard issue rifle until replaced with the FAL by the mid-1970s.
Unfortunately, the reference to the T-57 as a Taiwanese model is only speculation since the Salvadorans looted everything, including their own war-trophies. It’s known that the Salvadorans seized rifles, submachine guns (M50 and others), and machine guns, with the Honduran Army crest, during the raid in Honduras. There are even photographs of two jeeps with Honduran Army markings seized during the incursion. Yet, none of them are available at the Salvadoran Military Museum. Heck, even many of the Salvadoran historical weapons have disappeared, most of them given away in controversial weapon barters realized as soon as the civil-war ended in 1992, and up to 2012.
As soon as the shots stopped, the Air Force disposed of all the surviving Alouette helicopters, selling them as junk, and even the last flyable Corsair is said to have gone in exchange for a couple of Cherokee station-wagons. In 2020, two former defense ministers were arrested after it was disclosed that 14,930 firearms, 27,721 magazines, 2.7 million 7.62 caliber cartridges, and 9,800 spare parts for the G-3 rifles were provided to Centrum S.A de C.V (a local small arms dealer) in exchange for two M-71 howitzers and tools that were supposed to be worth some $2 million. Later it was found that the exchange in reality included 23,306 firearms and was valued at $3,277,097.28. However, according to the documents presented by the Attorney General’s Office (or FGR in Spanish) in 2021, the weapons were worth more than $8 million but their original value was manipulated in favor of Centrum, reducing the initial appraisal of $480 per gun, to $200, and, finally, to $42 per weapon. The lot contained 4,593 FMK-3 Argentinean-made SMGs, 2,670 of them brand new, 83 UZI Israeli-made SMGs, 700 MP5 German-made SMGs, 1,873 M50 Madsen Danish-made SMGs, 32 Styer Austrian-made Bullpup rifles, and an inventory of more than 16,000 G-3 rifles, 709 of them in mint condition (150 in original package), and up to 9,000 spare parts for of all types of weapons. To top it off, the FGR reported that the two M-71 howitzers were unworkable.
Prior to that barter, the military had disposed, quietly and in similar fashion, historical armament, to include the old CV3-33 tanks (the first of its kind used in El Salvador and disposed long ago), most of the old/antique small arms, to include Luger pistols, Mausers and Mauser-like rifles and respective bayonets, MP-28 SMGs, MG-30s, antique Gatling cannons, and other exotic weapons. There are not even illustrations of the CV-3-33, the Solothurn, Madsen M/38, and Breda 20mm autocannons once used by the military or the first coastguard cutters (GC-1 and GC-2), much less of the sole gunboat, the Cuscatlán, acquired in 1890.
In contrast, in Honduras, the military has preserved a number of antique and historically important weapons, to include captured Salvadoran examples, such as Madsen machine guns and 51mm mortars seized in June 1967, as well as a bounty of G3 rifles, G8 (HK-21) automatic rifles, and even an M37A1 anti-tank cannon, captured during the deadly San Rafael las Mataras ambush executed on July 17, 1969, on the highway between Nueva Ocotepeque and Santa Rosa de Lima. An M38C jeep, said to have been seized to the Salvadoran Army, parades with veterans every July. It needs to be noted that Honduras has probably experienced the same challenges annotated in El Salvador.
EL ZAPOTE FORT
El Zapote Fort was established in 1898, when a metal galley was built on what was previously a hill where zapote trees were abundant, hence its name. In 1900, the Cavalry was established as an independent body and consolidated at El Zapote Fort, but it marched away on 1906, being replaced by the First Infantry Regiment. At the time, the Second Artillery Regiment was housed at the San Francisco Fort, in downtown San Salvador (the Artillery Brigade/First Artillery Regiment was housed in Santa Ana). The First Infantry Regiment shared the installations with the First Machine Gun Regiment when it was established in 1912.
On September 24, 1914, the Salvadoran Artillery modernized with 53mm Krupp and 75mm Gruson Mle 1897 cannons, and in 1917, it consolidated in a single First Artillery Regiment in El Zapote. The First Infantry Regiment marched to occupy the San Francisco Fort in downtown San Salvador, and the First Machine Gun Regiment went to share installations with the 2nd Infantry Regiment at the Francisco Menéndez Fort, also in downtown San Salvador. That same year (1917), the metal galley gave way to a wooden house. El Zapote housed, at one point or another, the School of Corporals and Sergeants, and played a prominent role in the December 1931 coup that brought to power General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez.
In 1937, architect Borromeo Flores began the construction of the present structure, implementing a building resembling a medieval castle, with four towers, one in each corner, and two on its façade. In April 1944, El Zapote Fort backed General Hernandez Martinez in crushing a coup d’é·tat, and 28 years later, on March 25, 1972, El Zapote garrison became involved once more in a coup, this time against the military regimen. That day, then-Captain Rafael Bustillo dropped a bomb from his Mustang P-51 that destroyed the southwest tower, where there was an anti-aircraft gun firing at him.
In 1976 the Artillery Regiment vacated El Zapote, and marched to a new base some 37 km from San Salvador, where it became the Artillery Brigade “Lt. Col. Oscar Osorio.” El Zapote was then occupied by the Armed Forces Transmission Instruction Center (CITFA) in 1980. The CITFA became the Communications Command in 1993, and moved to occupy the San Carlos Fort, leaving the installations to the new Military Museum.
SAN FRANCISCO FORT
The San Francisco Fort Museum was established in 1983, and the Fort itself occupies the area that was once the San Diego de Álcala Convent (1592). This installation was abandoned and then demolished in 1730 to make way to the San Francisco Barracks built between 1731 and 1735. In 1828 the facilities were declared a military base for the revolutionary troops, and in 1831 it became the first military academy in Honduras. Then, in September 1847, its installations became the National University of Honduras, reverting once again in 1881 to a military school.
Fast forward to 1950, the fort became the First Military Zone, and on August 1, 1956, the garrison rebelled under the leadership of Santos Sorto Paz against then-president Julio Lozano Díaz. The building was bombarded with 51mm, 60mm, and 81mm mortars and hit by machine gun fire. Once in power, the proclaimed military junta that ruled between 1956-1957 ordered its immediate restoration. In 1959, the garrison rebelled once more, under Colonel Armando Velásquez Cerrato, and then again in 1963 under Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, both actions against then-president José Ramón Villeda Morales. In 1972 its installations were occupied by the Army Officer Application School, and in 1983 it became the Military History Directorate. The fort was completely restored in 1999, and again more than a decade later. Finally, on May 2, 2014 the renovated installations of the Honduran Francisco Morazan Military Historical Museum reopened to the public.