By Julio A. Montes
Taiwan distributed its indigenous rifle, the T-65, generously among the Central American nations in the mid-1980s. The T-65K1 is still found in the hands of the Panamanian Institutional Protection Service (or “SPI” in Spanish – the Presidential Guard), and the Panamanian National Police (PNP). As it happened, the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) selected the T-65 as its standard rifle in 1986, acquiring some 10,000 rifles before switching to the Kalashnikov. The rifle became the standard-issue rifle in 1990 within the new Panamanian Public Force that replaced the PDF, until replaced once more, by the Kalashnikov, in the form of the Hungarian’s AMD-65, in 1991.
In 2010, the Salvadoran Armed Force (ESAF) loaned 700 rifles to the National Civilian Police (or “PNC” in Spanish). The PNC had actually received the first batch of loaned T-65K1 rifles between 1995 and 1996, and the Army would eventually transfer up to 2,000 Taiwanese rifles to the PNC. The Salvadoran military had acquired some 5,000 T-65 rifles during the civil conflict in the 1980s, and these had been distributed exclusively to the law enforcement security forces, namely the National Police, elements of the National Guard’s combat battalion (“September 15” Antiterrorist Battalion or “BIAT”), and the Treasury Polic’s combat battalion (“Cuervo” COIN battalion (BIC) and then Libertadores BIAT). The T-65 is still prominent in the hands of Salvadoran police officers, and it’s the standard rifle for the 250 policemen and other guards securing the Terrorism Confinement Center (or “CECOT” in Spanish), a jail holding up to 40,000 gang-members.
TAIWAN’S SMALL ARMS
In April 1966, the Taiwanese military leadership charged the Combined Service Forces with the manufacturing of the M-14 rifle and the M-60 machine gun to supply its military. The U.S. government agreed to sell tools, components, material, documentation, technical assistance, and assemblies in January 1967. Consequently, the 60th arsenal in Kaoshiung built over 700,000 M-14s, classified as the Type 1957 (T-57), between 1969 and 1980.
The T-57 would jumpstart the Taiwanese’s small arms industry, and it was followed by the development of a 5.56mm model starting in 1968. This culminated in 1976, when Taiwan adopted the T-65 rifle. The rifle was developed and then manufactured by the Combined Logistics Command using the AR-15 platform, minus the carrying handle, and the mechanism of the Armalite AR-18. The T-65K1 refers to an improved variant made by the Joint Logistics Plant No. 205 (known as the 205th arsenal), with a new handguard with aluminum heat shields, and other minor changes. The K1 is said to have started production in 1985, but within a couple of years it had been superseded by the T-65K2.
The K2 was based on the improvements found in the M-16A2 rifle, hence its resemblance to that U.S. rifle. The T-65K2 was also known as the T-68 and evolved into the K3 and K4 variants before jumping to the T-86 carbine. The T-86 is almost identical in its exterior to the U.S.-made M4 carbine, introducing similar improvements, but still using the piston-type gas mechanism of the T-65. The T-86 itself evolved into the T-91 rifle, which replaces the carrying handle for a Picatinny-type rail and uses a longer barrel.
Interestingly, one of the rows of rifles photographed being transferred from the Salvadoran Army to the police in 2010 showed T-65 rifles with M16-type carrying handles, indicating that these were T-65K2 models. As noted, the T-65K2 entered service in the early 1990s, so their presence in El Salvador in 2010 suggests that some rifles were delivered after the civil war had ended in 1992.
Little is known about the supply of Taiwanese’ small arms to other Central American nations, but it is reported that the T-65 was used by the Guatemalan, Honduran, and Costa Rican police in the 1980s. Photographs pop up now and then, verifying their existence with security forces of those nations. In 1973 the Costa Rican government established the Judicial Police (OIJ – Organismo de Investigación Judicial), with 120 elements, and by the mid-1980s it had reached a strength of some 647. Half of those officers had received training and equipment from Taiwan. Taipei also assisted in the training and equipping of a Costa Rican’s Civil Guard riot squad and supplied some rifles to equip some of the 3,000-member Rural Guard (established in 1969). In 2006, Taiwan donated 71 vehicles and 30 mountain motorcycles to the Costa Rican police, and seven outboards to equip four coastguard boats.
Taiwan may have even supplied a few T-57 rifles to Honduras around 1969, as well, but it’s noted that only 200 Type 57 rifles had been produced by July 1, 1969. So, if any of these ended up in Central America in July 1969, they were probably remanufactured M-14 rifles. Nevertheless, it does appear that the first modern standard-rifle of the Honduran Army was the M-14 rifle –possibly augmented by T-57s– in 1970, switching to the FAL in 1975.
Honduras received considerable military assistance from Taiwan since the 1960s. Around 2004 – 2005, Taiwan provided assistance in maintaining Honduran F-5 fighter aircraft, but most of the assistance remained somewhat secret until 2015, when it publicly donated four AIDC UH-1H helicopters. Similar transactions and offerings were made to Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Guatemala and these included additional hardware that was not disclosed publicly. Consequently, the Honduran package is believed to have included up to 30 Humvees and other hardware to match a similar number of M-1025 transferred by the U.S. in 2007.
Indeed, besides rifles, Taiwan contributed surplus and excess defense equipment to Latin American allies in unsuccessful efforts to retain their diplomatic support against the Popular Republic of China (PRC). In 1998, Taiwan set up a $240 million aid fund to distribute among Central American nations in exchange for their support and facilitated the supply of vehicles, boats and helicopters, as well as technical assistance to a number of Latin American allies.
OTHER WEAPONS AND LATIN AMERICAN ALLIES
Taiwan’s military decided to replace some 7,000 Humvees with a new vehicle starting in 2003, so it has been transferring dozens of them to Latin American allies. Similarly, Taiwan has been disposing of its Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC)’s UH-1H helicopters, phasing them up since late 1990s. In the maritime area, the Taiwanese Navy phased out its Hai Ou (Seagull)-class missile boats between 1999 and 2012 and offered some of them to Latin American allies. The Hai Ou is none other than the Israeli Dvora class, modified by Taiwan with three propeller shafts, instead of the two used in Dvora, and fitting two Hsiung Feng I anti-ship missiles instead of the Israeli’s Gabriel. In addition, Taiwan supplied dozens of police vehicles, motorcycles, and financed small launches and security initiatives.
Panama received five AIDC UH-1H helicopters in 1997, followed by another pair a few years later. Then, Taiwan financed an EMB-135BJ Legacy 600 and a Bell-412EP helicopter for Panamanian presidential use. In 2017, Taiwan provided funds to strengthen four Panamanian projects of the Bilateral Cooperation Program between both governments. Among others, the money funded a Damen Interceptor (DI) 1102 boat for operations around Guna Yala, and, according to the newspaper Critica, it was the fourth DI-1102 financed by Taipei. The Asian nation also funded the construction of a Naval Air Station in Almirante, district of Changuinola, province of Bocas del Toro, and fifteen vehicles for the PNP in Chiriquí and Veraguas. Panama switched to China in 2017.
In the case of El Salvador, Taiwan provided 500 motorcycles to its police between 2004 and 2009. Then, in the 2005 – 2006 period, it offered two Hai Ou-class patrol boats to the Salvadoran Navy. But, by 2007, the Salvadoran deputy chief of staff acknowledged that the offering had been cancelled and replaced with direct contributions to the government in an effort to defeat the former guerrilla front, the FMLN, in presidential elections. Nevertheless, the FMLN defeated the right-wing Arena party, and came to power in 2009. In 2017, Taiwan offered four AIDC UH-1H helicopters along with a hidden offering of dozens of Humvees but cancelled in 2018 after the Salvadoran ministry of defense failed to obtain $2 million for the freight, and it was disclosed that the FMLN was planning to switch its support to China after Taipei had denied financial support to the former guerrillas. Ironically, in August 2022, the Salvadoran attorney general’s office (or “FGR” in Spanish) was investigating $3.9 million, donated by Taiwan, that had been diverted during the administration of former FMLN President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
Since 1995 Taiwan supplied raw materials for uniforms and infantry gear to the Nicaraguan military. In 2004, Taiwan pledged to finance the repair of the Nicaraguan Air Force’s Mi-17 helicopters and the donation of vehicles and motorcycles for the police of the autonomous Caribbean regions and supported new uniforms for the Nicaraguan police. In 2018, three Taiwanese warships stopped at Corinto, Nicaragua, for three-days of joint training activities. The ships also stopped at El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. In 2019, Taipei financed the repair of four Nor-Tech 43V naval interceptors, previously donated by the U.S. in 2009, and a 48-foot model. Nevertheless, Nicaragua severed ties with Taiwan at the end of 2021.
Taiwan’s donations have contributed to several abnormal transactions in Central America, as well. In 2019, Taiwan approved, and then under pressure rejected, a loan for $100 million to the Ortega government of Nicaragua, through its export-import bank (Eximbank). It was not the first time. Taiwan had disbursed $178.1 million to Nicaragua between 1997 and 2003. And then, in 2004, Taiwan suspended its economic aid to the Enrique Bolaños’ government, also of Nicaragua, when the donations faced a number of scandals.
Between 2003 and mid-2004, Taiwan donated some $10 million to El Salvador to care for the victims of the 2001 earthquakes and to help the National Civil Police combat kidnapping gangs. However, the government of former President Francisco Flores diverted the money to his party’s bank accounts to finance Arena’s Antonio Saca presidential campaign.
In a similar scheme, between 2001 and 2003, Taiwan had provided $2.3 million to political leaders of the Costa Rican’s Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the National Liberation Party (PLN) between 2001 and 2003; of this amount, $1.4 million had been diverted to the Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodríguez. In Guatemala, it appears that money went to the pockets of former President Alfonso Portillo.
In Honduras, in 2015, the presidency announced Taiwan’s donation of a Bell 412EP helicopter and an Embraer Legacy 600 jet for the use of the president. However, in 2022, it was disclosed that the Honduran Executive at the time (2015) actually used the Security Tax Fund (known as “TASON” in Spanish) to pay for the aircraft, and then moved $14 million pledged by Taiwan for security matters to replace the money taken from the TASON. Neither the TASON nor Taiwan’s donation were earmarked for the pleasure of the presidency, and the aircraft had not been donated. Honduras broke with Taiwan in 2023.
WHAT IS LEFT IN LATIN AMERICA
While Haiti received 100 T-91 rifles and other gear, the Dominican Republic received 960 motorcycles for the use of police by 2014. In addition, the Dominican Republic received two AIDC UH-1H helicopters in 2017, and it was made public that the package included 90 HMMWV vehicles and 100 engines. Dominican Republic changed support in favor of China in 2017 while Haiti remains as a holdout in the Caribbean, along with Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent, and the Grenadines.
In South America, Paraguay particularly benefited by receiving six AT-33A Silver Star light attack jet aircraft in 1991, two Hai Ou-class patrol boats in 1994, and up to sixteen AIDC UH-1H helicopters transferred between 1996, 2001, and 2019-2021. These were followed by 30 HMMWVs in 2019, and more than 600 motorcycles for the police. In 2011, Taiwan financed one Cessna Citation Sovereign aircraft, and one Bell 427 and one Bell 407 GXI helicopters, all for presidential use.
Taiwan donated two UH-1H helicopters to Guatemala in 1996 and another two in 2012, along with spares for another two UH-1Hs, while Belize received a pair of UH-1Hs in 2016. By early 2024, these two Central American countries were the only ones left in the region retaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan.