Salvadoran Coast Guard and Aerial and Maritime Police

Salvadoran Coast Guard and Aerial and Maritime Police


By Julio A. Montes

We visited Navy Captain Omar Iván Hernández Martínez, Chief of the General Staff of the Salvadoran Naval Force, and Lt. Commander Mario Alberto Orellana Cabrera, Chief of Naval Operations at the San Salvador Naval Command on the eve of the International Surfing Association Youth World Championship, held in Surf City, El Salvador, from May 27 to June 5, 2023. El Salvador’s Naval Force (ELNF) has the task of providing security and support to the National Civil Police at La Bocana, better known as El Tunco Beach, an area that has transformed into El Salvador’s “Surf City”, where the tournament took place. Adding to the activities, the Naval Force was preparing to transform into the new Maritime Force (Fuerza de Marina), a change that will restore its role as national maritime authority.

A Salvadoran PNC UH-1H. Police Command would like to convert this aircraft to Huey-II standards. (PNC)

This is the result of a new navigation law approved by the Salvadoran Congress in March 2023, repealing the 2002-General Maritime-Port law and the 1933-Navigation and Marine Law. The new law grants supervision, control, and surveillance of matters related to the sea, navigation and port regimen to the National Navy. The new law authorizes an expansion of the Salvadoran Navy with the establishment of the Coast Guard Service Unit and provides for the contemplation of changing the name of “Naval Force” to “Maritime Force.” It also creates a naval reserve, establishing that national flagged ships, their captains and crew, when they are called to the service of the National Navy in cases of armed conflict or national emergency, will be subordinated to the Maritime Authority and subject to the rules and regulations of the National Navy. It also tasks the Maritime Force with ensuring maritime interests and enforcing laws and international treaties that regulate maritime activities in jurisdictional waters.

Consequently, the organic law of El Salvador Armed Force (ELAF) will undergo organizational modifications contemplating the Coast Guard service as a unit of the National Navy to assume the role of Maritime Authority. The law also clears the way for the Coast Guard to work in counteracting maritime pollution, illegal fishing, and non-traditional threats. The Coast Guard services unit will comprise a CG flotilla and port captaincies.

Air, Maritime and Port Police

The document Historical Review of the Port of Acajutla, published in San Salvador in 2017, traces the first port police to a group of 30-agents assigned to guard the pier when import operations started on July 29, 1961. However, the roles of aeronautical, maritime, and port security have been assigned traditionally to the armed forces.

It would not be until the National Civil Police (PNC) was established in 1992 that an Air Police Group (GAP, for its initials in Spanish) and a Maritime Police Group (GMP, for its initials in Spanish) were designed as support units for law enforcement assignments in these specialty areas.

The GMP gained particular importance in 2002, after the Naval Force lost its role as a national maritime authority. That year, the Salvadoran Naval Command suggested an addendum to the 1933 navigation and marine law in order to modernize its mandate. Instead, the executive and the legislature removed the traditional role from the Naval Force and established the General Maritime-Port Law. This established a new Maritime Port Authority under the Ministry of Transportation – a new bureaucracy headed by political affiliates – and also charged some of the traditional tasks to the National Civilian Police.

However, the GMP had not been designed for such tasks, and was having a difficult time with material due to its lack of facilities and faulty equipment. In 2008, the PNC announced a budget of $60.4 million to acquire, among others, one more Robinson R-44 helicopter for $400,000 for the Police Air Group (GAP), and $1.5 million for ten Rodman R-800 boats. As it happened, the GMP had already acquired twenty Rodman R-800 Fly boats in 1998, paying ȼ1,500,000 (colones) per boat (equivalent to $171,428, in 1998). The first batch of the order received the pennants PNC L-01-01 to L-01-10 while the following batch of the same order received pennants PNC L1-01-11 to 1-01-20. The PNC established two rustic maritime bases, one in port Acajutla, in Sonsonate, and the other at El Triunfo port, Usulután.

An R-800 from the original batch, carrying pennant PNC L-1-01-07. The original batch received pennants PNC L-1-01-01 to L-1-01-10. (La Prensa Gráfica)

However, the R-800s proved problematic due to the Salvadoran police command’s lack of foresight for logistics and maintenance. By 2000, the then Sub-Inspector Alcides Vega Alvarado, head of the GMP in Acajutla, commented that of the five R-800 at his disposal at El Triunfo, only one was fully functional. It was claimed that this was due to technical problems in its two internal Yanmar 165hp engines that faced failures in the crosshead system and other accessories. Failures were also reported in its electronic detection and navigation systems. At that time, only one boat was operated in the Acajutla area.

Salvadoran police commandos with M4 and MP5 firearms. (J. Montes)

In September 2001, the GMP experienced its first loss, when one of the boats sank when the mooring broke while it was being lowered to the water in Acajutla. Agent José Cristian López Erazo was trapped in the sinking boat and drowned. Two other units had been lost in other incidents, as one of them was involved in a collision, rendering it useless, and the other was struck by lightning. By 2008 the GMP had eight of the Rodman units practically abandoned at El Triunfo, and the GMP used only a captured go-fast boats for patrols.

In October 2005 a public auction was opened to sell eight derelict R-800s for $30,000 each, but there were no buyers. Then the same eight boats would be officially donated in the first week of September 2007 to the Autonomous Port Executive Commission (CEPA), which had found ways to repair them in 2008, and returned them to the water to be used by CEPA for port security.


The PNC also organized a 24-member Aquatic Group (GAT), equipped with speedboats and ten jet skis under the Tourism Police Division. Eventually, the GAT and the GMP became part of the Tourism Police Division, and later a separate Maritime Police Division under the Sub-Directorate of Public Security.

El Salvador’s STORM emblem.

Currently, the Maritime Police Division has 166 agents, with jurisdiction and protection of 193 miles (310 km) along the Pacific coast in three permanent rustic naval stations located in La Unión and Acajutla. Facilities have also been established on the boulevard Costa del Sol, jurisdiction of San Luis La Herradura, La Paz for fluvial patrols along the estuary. In January 2020, the Maritime Reaction Operational Tactical Section (Sección Táctica Operativa de Reacción Marítima – STORM) was added as part of the comprehensive Territorial Control Plan implemented by Bukele’s administration throughout the country. The unit was created with assistance from the United States and Colombia. The Office of Anti-Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) facilitated training and equipment for the first 69 maritime police commandos by December 2020. The agents are trained in narco-boat interdiction, rescue and survival practices, swimming, first aid, tactical movements, navigation and maritime operations, among others.

STORM police maritime commandos during training. (PNC)

Although the Maritime Police Division still uses a couple of the surviving R-800s, it has acquired a number of locally built launches while STORM has been equipped with Zodiac inflatables donated by INL. For interdiction, STORM uses Zodiac Milpro Model 2015 SRA-750 variants, with two outboard Evinrude E-TEC G2 300hp engines, and Zodiac Model 2019 SAR900, also with Twin Evinrude E-TEC G2s.

​​Eye in the sky

The U.S. Navy maintains a Cooperative Security Location (CSL), formerly known as Forward Operating Location (FOL), in El Salvador. FOL Comalapa began operations on August 29, 2000, following the closure of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. It changed its name to CSL Comalapa in 2009, and continued to serve as a hub for elements of the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command Task Force 47, the U.S. Air Force P9-A (GOCO), U.S. Coast Guard C-130 and HH-65s, Canadian CP140, and contracted UAVs supporting JIATF-S counter narcotics missions.

CSL Comalapa with activity from the USCG. (J. Montes)

CSL Comalapa shares installations with the Salvadoran Air Force’s 2nd Air Brigade located some 26 miles southeast of San Salvador. The bilateral agreement to operate the CSL allows the U.S. military and other allies to maintain a strategic, cost-effective location by using existing airfields to support the region’s multinational efforts to combat transnational organized crime. In July 2019, the agreement to operate CSL Comalapa was extended to 2024.

In 2012 the Armed Forces established the Cuscatlán Joint Group, which became the Cuscatlán Inter-agency Group in conjunction with the National Civilian Police (PNC), the Office of the Attorney General (FGR), the Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA), the Directorate of Migration and Immigration and members of the monitoring station from the United States. The Cuscatlán Inter-agency Group is also based at Comalapa, and the U.S. Embassy, ​​through INL, invested approximately $3 million in equipment and installations for this group. In addition, through INL and the U.S. Coast Guard liaison, courses have been delivered at the International Training Division in Yorktown, Virginia, for Salvadoran police and military elements.

A PNC speed boat. (PNC)

A close cooperation between the CSL assets and the local authorities has netted tons of drugs travelling the Pacific. It is noted that the new 2023 navigation law was approved just as the El Salvador Naval Force (ELFN) announced another drug seizure on the high seas, consisting of 1.2 tons of cocaine. The load, valued at $30 million, was intercepted some 520 nautical miles (963 kilometers) from Bocana el Cordoncillo, Estero de Jaltepeque (on the Salvadoran coast). On July 2, 2023, another seizure of a ton of cocaine took place at 525 nautical miles (some 972 kilometers) from the Salvadoran coast. This was done by the Salvadorans using 85-foot (26-meter) coast guard cutters, highlighting the need from ELFN of acquiring one, and preferably two, off-shore patrol boats, and one, or two, additional 85-Defiant class cutters – similar to the 87-foot (27m) USCG Protector class purchased through the Near Coastal Patrol Vessel (NCPV) program sponsored by the U.S. Navy.

If funds could be obtained, and U.S. assistance is not forthcoming, the new Coast Guard Service Unit could look for surplus vessels from South American allies. The Chilean ASMAR 108ft (33m) Danubio/Protector-class LSG has been an option since the early 2000s, but it’s MTU engines could create a logistical problem in El Salvador unless they could be switched to Cat C-32 (like those mounted on the 85 Defiant PM-15). Sixteen of these vessels were built between 1999 and 2002 in Chile to a Protector class design from Fairey Brooke Marine (U.K.). Although normally equipped with a single Oerlikon MK-IV, it can accommodate a 20mm TCM-20 gun-system forward (obtained either from Chile of from Salvadoran inventories). For EZZ patrols, something closer to the ASMAR 139.4-foot (42.5m) Taitao/Micalvi class would be more appropriate, and their Caterpillar engines would be more logistically acceptable. Six of these vessels were built between 1992 and 1996.

Failed funds

In 2022, the Legislative Assembly (National Congress) ratified a loan with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) that had been agreed in 2018, but was delayed by the previous legislature. The funds included $13 million for an ocean-going patrol vessel, in the lines of the FCS-5009. This is a 165-foot (50m) commercial fast-crew-supplier vessel that has been successfully modified for ocean patrol, mounting a single self-defense small-caliber naval cannon forward and several machine guns at port and starboard. The vessel is capable of carrying two naval interceptors, and even having space for a small helipad for a light helicopter. Modified in this way, the 5009 coast guard cutter functions similarly in concept to the 154-foot (46.8m) USCG Sentinel class (minus the helipad, and one naval interceptor).

A Salvadoran PNC R-44 helicopter. (PNC)

The CABIE loan was also needed to fund one Bell-429 for the police as well as $5 million to fund the conversion of the sole police UH-1H to Huey-II standards. The Police Air Group provides support to the different units of the National Civil Police, through the use of aircraft in cases of search, evacuation and rescue of people and in operations carried out for the security and defense of the population. It is equipped with a small Cessna, an UH-1H, an MD500D, two MD530N, and two R44s. A four-seater Piper Arrow was added in 2017. The CABIE denied the loan for the Bell-429 due to the lack of police facilities to maintain it, and the $5 million was considered overpriced by at least $3.5 million. The proposed resolution was to merge those funds to acquire a second Bell-412 or up to eight Huey-IIs for the Air Force (if done correctly.)

Nevertheless — and surprisingly — the CABEI failed to release the funds due to international pressure, and the Salvadoran coast guard remains unable to safely perform its mandate out-to-sea. The police, on the other hand, might be able to incorporate a like-new Bell-505, recently confiscated from former president Alfredo Cristiani.

A Bell 505 helicopter confiscated from former president Alfredo Cristiani. (FGR)