Central American SPECOPS Weapons- WEAPONS II: HONDURAS, NICARAGUA, COSTA RICA & PANAMA
By Julio A. Montes
HONDURAN BURNING FIREWOOD STICK
A “teson” in colloquial Spanish means a burning firewood stick, but in Honduras, the word is representative of the most fearsome elements of its Army. The Night and Special Operations Troop, or TESON (Tropa de Operaciones Especiales y Nocturnas) Course was established in the 1970s.
The Honduran Army had received a serious defeat in the hands of the Salvadoran army during the 100-hour-war of 1969. As was the KAIBIL course in Guatemala, the TESON course was established in the late 1970s and early 1980s to train military junior leaders to operate in a jungle-environment and at night. After the initial organization, its combat potential became clear, and an operational group was established. The TESONES (plural for teson) today carry the hot firewood stick for the state.
Prior to the 1969 war with El Salvador, the Honduran Military dictatorship had neglected training, and there were several “ghost1” units, existent only on paper, so their officers could collect the payroll. The 1st Infantry Battalion had been established in July 1954. The 2nd Infantry Battalion had been raised in January 1962, the 3rd in June 1965 and the Presidential Honor Guard Battalion (now 5th Inf Bn) in 1967. However, when the Salvadoran army struck along the borders, the Honduran defenses duly collapsed. Only at the Ticante Ridge range were the defenders able to hold the invaders until the OAS ordered a cease-fire.
Given the previous military failure, the military structure was reshuffled. The High Command set up to correct the previous deficiencies, and to prepare the armed forces for a second confrontation with El Salvador.
With assistance from US Special Forces Mobile Training Teams, the 2nd Infantry Battalion headquarters in Tamara became the base for the Special Tactical Group (ATE-Agrupacion Tactical Especial), established soon after the war. The ATE grouped the 1st Special Forces, the TESON School and the Parachute School. During this period, the 2nd “Panteras Negras” Infantry Battalion was selected for airborne qualification, and the A Coy/2nd Inf. Bn. (Airborne) became the first official parachute unit of the Army. The Black Panther received new equipment in the form of OR-201 Helmets and Galil rifles from Israel, and US infantry gear, jump equipment and uniforms from the US.
The 1st Special Forces Company was later transferred to Talanga, and became the nucleus of the 1st Parachute & Special Force Battalion. The Army later organized the 2nd Parachute & Special Forces Battalion at Dursuna. During this time frame, the Special Forces Battalions exchanged their UZI SMGs, FN-FALs and OG-107 US uniforms for more modern equipment, including M4 carbines, M16 rifles, and US BDUs.
The creation of these two battalions led to the establishment of the Centro de Operaciones Tacticas Especiales del Ejercito (COTE for Tactical Special Operations Center) at El Ocotal. The COTE is responsible for the coordination and operations of the two TESON groups, the two Special Forces Battalions, Battalion 300 (M.I.) and the ATE. However, very little is known about the TESON structure and strength. My visits to Army HQ and other installations have ended in polite but frustrating refusals to cooperate, particularly after determining my Salvadoran ancestry.
The 7th “Venceremos” Infantry Battalion was established in February 1973. The American press would categorize the 7th Inf. Bn. as an elite airborne unit of the army. However, this was a regular unit based at El Ocotal, in the vicinity of Tegucigalpa. The unit hosted several combined exercises with the US, and became adept at air assault techniques and received considerable attention from USSF training teams in the process. There was also confusion with the Panteras Negras (Black Panther) Bn., which was referred as the 2nd Parachute Battalion instead of its official designation as the 2nd Infantry Battalion (Airborne), implying the existence of a 1st Parachute Battalion.
Since the TESON has close ties to the US Special Forces, it is speculated that it maintains an organization and strength similar to the Salvadoran Special Forces Group (GOE). There would be a deep reconnaissance outfit and a strike force, each of about company-strength. The 2nd Special Forces Battalion has been disbanded, but the 1st SOF Bn. and the 2nd Infantry Battalion (Airborne) remain as rapid reaction units.
Weapons consists of the usual M9 Beretta or the M1911A1 pistols, UZI and MP5 SMGs. Those troops operating in the jungle-rich environment up north are equipped with Galil rifles. Most units in the central region are equipped with M4 Carbines and M16 rifles. Those units attached to the Armored Cavalry Regiment and operating in the south, where the terrain is more open, retain their FN FAL rifles.
Unlike its Salvadoran counterpart, which is optimized for COIN warfare, the Honduran Army is geared to conventional warfare, and regards the Armored Cavalry Regiment (RECABLIN) as an elite outfit. The Army strategy is clearly offensive in nature, taking the initiative to seize or block the enemy forward with elite airborne forces while rushing its armored formations and additional infantry units to reinforce and hold the advanced positions. The TESON Group would be used to raid or ambush strategic points. This would free the 2nd Infantry Battalion (Airborne) and the 1st Special Forces Battalion to be used for deployment in assaults to tactical centers or to be used as advanced blocking forces. The assets of the Armored Cavalry Regiment then would puncture through any weak defenses to link with the paratroopers forward.
A strike on Salvadoran forces in Morazan (Military Detachment 4) and La Union (MD3) through the Choluteca Gap would allow a fast advance with little resistance into El Salvador. The Choluteca Gap extends from Choluteca in Honduras through an open terrain corridor into El Salvador. This corridor runs through Sta. Rosa de Lima, western Morazan, along the Pan-American Highway to the crossroads leading to San Miguel and La Union, in El Salvador. The Salvadoran army lacks armored vehicles, antitank weapons, and even heavy mortars in the region; the troops at MD3 & MD4 have been reduced to a weakened infantry battalion, equipped with rifles and light mortars. Therefore, the Salvadorans would likely retreat to the Morazan mountains, where the environment presents dense vegetation and broken terrain, inappropriate for an armored thrust. The Honduran armored forces then would be free to travel south along the Salvadoran province of La Union, with sub-units dashing forward to link up with blocking units. The SOF Bn, the Parachute Bn. and the TESON group would have been delivered to advanced positions by air in order to harass, ambush and hold important points, denying reinforcements from the 3rd (San Miguel) and 6th (Usulutan) Infantry Brigades. Their superior air force (FAH) would deny air support or the deployment of the Salvadoran Special Forces by air or land. This maneuver could assure the capture of Cutuco, the most important Salvadoran commercial port, in less than two days. Upon control of La Union, Honduras would have free passage through the Fonseca Gulf, and control over several island and territory in dispute.
“There are reports that the Honduran Army has contracted for a package of weapons that includes Storm M242 utility vehicles and 5.56x45mm Galil rifles from an Israeli distributor based in El Salvador. Without a doubt, some of the equipment will be used to equip SpecOps sections of the Honduran forces.”
NICARAGUAN SMALL SPECIAL FORCES UNITS
During Somoza’s time, elite Nicaraguan forces were assigned to the personal protection of the dictator. There was a Special Forces Company run by an American mercenary. In the mid-1970s, the EEBI (Escuela de Entrenamiento Basico de Infanteria) started the so-called Pilot Project, consisting of a dedicated training program for junior leaders. The EEBI, under Major Somoza Portocarrero, organized a few special operations squads that could be distinguished by their unique tiger stripes camouflaged uniforms and US ALICE equipment, and M16 or Galil rifles. The Pilot Project also graduated 90 sergeants as trainers in 1979. These men were the backbone of Major Pablo Camilio Salazar’s column. With these men, Salazar “Comandante Bravo” became the most effective officer of the Nicaraguan National Guard. His unit was responsible for wiping out an FSLN column of 160 men. Only 19 guerrillas survived the attack. However, this was too little too late to prevent the victory of the uprising against Somoza.
After the defeat of the National Guard, the new Ejercito Popular Sandinista (EPS) was established. Cubans and Soviet advisers emphasized heavy formations; therefore, in 1980 the EPS deployed the Exploration Units (EU) as part of the Brigada de Tropas Pedro Altamirano. These elite reconnaissance outfits were not tasked with special ops; they were armored formations whose members had been trained in parachute and combat swimming techniques. Eventually, these reconnaissance units formed the nucleus of the forming Compañias de Destino Especial (CODE). Around 1985, the EPS established the PUFEs (Pequeñas Unidades de Fuerzas Especiales or Small Special Forces Units), comprising some 63 men each. The Compañia de Destino Especial (CODE) was established with two or three PUFEs, and the Batallón Julio Buitrago Urroz followed some time later, established with 3 CODEs. By 1986, the PUFEs were reorganized in Detachments, and established their headquarters in Asturias. The name PUFE, however, stuck, and even today the formations are referred as PUFEs.
In 1987, the Special Forces moved to the Chiltepe region, vicinity of Managua, and by 1988 the Battalion PUFE-BON Julio Buitrago Urroz became the only tactical SPECOPS outfit of the EPS, and added a Reconnaissance Detachment, a Submarine Detachment and an Air Assault Detachment to its order of battle.
The Border Guard Troops established the COPETEs - Compañías Permanentes Territoriales-in the border areas; these also proved very successful and reached elite status due to their aggressive nature against the enemy.
As the low-intensity warfare progressed, the EPS organized the hunter battalions with the mission of locating the enemy. Once the position of the Contras had been fixed, it was the role of the Irregular Fighting Battalions (BLI - Batallones de Lucha Irregular) to destroy the enemy. Hunter battalions operated and organized in a similar way to US Rangers and light infantry. The BLIs were equivalent to the Salvadoran Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Battalion, and MIKE forces of the Vietnam War, being air dropped from Mi-8s and Mi-17s. According to the Army, the use of COPETEs, hunters and BLIs proved successful keeping the Contras in check.
The first Nicaraguan commandos were trained at El Cacho, Pinal del Rio, Cuba. During the long civil-war struggle of the 1980s against counterrevolutionaries, the Nicaraguan commandos received considerable aid from former Soviet Union allies. However, with the help of Cuba and the former Soviet Union long gone, the COE welcomes training from various sources. A strong bond has been established between the COE and SpecOps counterparts from Germany, Spain and France. Last year, a platoon of the COE traveled to Martinique to participate in jungle warfare training for 6 months with the 33rd RIMA, and more exchange programs are being scheduled.
The Nicaraguan Army Special Operations Command (COE - COMANDO DE OPERACIONES ESPECIALES) today is located at the Xiloa Lagoon, some 15 kilometers from Managua. The unit is under the command of LtCol. Rafael Ramirez Gomez, and it is tasked as the main element of the Rescue and Humanitarian Unit of the Nicaraguan Government. As such, the COE must be able to deploy within 35 minutes notice to engage not only armed enemies of the state, but also in humanitarian missions against natural disasters.
The government makes use of the COE in support of the National Police to literally exterminate kidnapping rings, and drug traffickers. The COE is tasked with the protection of strategic targets, and protection of VIPs. It performs SAR operations, and social actions in support of civilian authorities. The Special Forces were particularly instrumental in SAR operations during the Hurricane Mitch emergency of 1998, and the two earthquakes that rattled El Salvador in 2001.
The COE is also tasked with training other Army units, and it has trained and equipped the Honor Guard Unit and the Personal Protection and Security Unit of the Army. These two elite outfits are charged with the protection of the Army and government leadership. It has also trained the TAPIRs, the elite police response unit.
In 1992, the Nicaraguan Special Forces remained with 2 SF battalions placed directly under the EPS Command. Each battalion comprised 3 detachments (1st BON: 11 Detach, 12 Detach, & 13 Detach; 2nd BON: 21, 22, & 23). Each Detachment was placed under the command of a Lieutenant Colonel. The Comando de Operaciones Especiales (COE) is finally established in 1995 with 4 Detachments, and one Fire Support Unit. Today, the COE responds directly to Army Command. There is a Support Apparatus, and three main departments: Command, PPUU de Combate (for Small Combat Units), and Security Element. The PPUU - or Pequeñas Unidades de Combate - comprises three Special Operations Detachments (1st, 2nd & 3rd), one Antitank Detachment and one Defense/Fire Support Detachment. The COE employs pairs (referred as binomios), Teams (5 men), Groups (4 Teams and one headquarters group), and Detachments (4 Groups plus one headquarters detachment). The COE deploys one spec ops platoon in support of the Northern Military Detachment.
The preferred small arm of the Nicaraguan COE commandos is the Micro Galil 5.56x45mm rifle, along with the UZI and Mini-Uzi 9mm machine guns. Most of the troops, however, sport the standard 7.62x39mm AKM modified by the Nicaraguans with the retractable stock of the Galil. Quantities of M79 grenade launchers were captured from the former Somoza’s National Guard and from the Contras, and they have been placed in service with the commandos. Other former Soviet equipment is still in use, including Dragunov SVD, RPK machine guns and RPG-7 rocket launchers. The support units utilize heavy weapons such as 23mm cannons, and SA-16 missiles.
The COE emblem consists of two branches of Oak leafs around a knife, similar to the Spanish Special Forces emblem. The Oak leaf symbolizes the unbreakable spirit of the commando and the knife represents the commando’s ability, valor and audacity. The Green Beret is reserved to SPECOPS officers, and the field hat to enlisted commandos. The Green Beret represents pride and faith in victory.
It takes almost a year of selection and training to make a Nicaraguan Commando. After graduation of the Infantry Basic Course (CBI), the COE selects the best graduates. They are then talked into joining the COE since this is an all-volunteer force. They attend the Basic Commando Course of some three months. The commando can choose to continue to the Advanced Commando Course, culminating with the Antiterrorist Course (Close Quarters Combat). There is a Team Leader Development Course (EOE- Equipo de Operaciones Especiales) reserved for NCOs, and there are additional courses in rapelling and climbing. The Sniper Course is reserved to 1st and 2nd Class sergeants. In 2000, the COE graduated the 1st Class of the Officers Special Operations Course. Of 21 cadets, only 6 graduated. The Parachute Basic Course was also designed by the COE, and now is offered to all cadets from the Division Gral. Jose Dolores Estrada Vado Military Academy.
COSTA RICAN POLICE RESPONSE
Costa Rica does not deploy an army; instead, the nation depends on police agencies for internal and borders security. The Public Force was re-organized once more between 2001-2002, and it is hoped that this new structure will be retained by future administrations. Sometime ago, SAR profiled the Police Tactical Unit C-5, but this unit has now been assimilated into a new structure.
The Civil Guard, Border Police and Rural Guard remain on paper only. The Civil and Rural Guard have been disbanded and its elements and assets distributed among the new police agencies that form the new organization.
The Ministry of Public Security has been replaced by 2002 with a Ministry of Government, Police and Public Security with a General Direction of the Public Force. Members of the new Police Ministry bent over backwards trying to explain the new structure. The various police units comprising the Public Force (PF) are: the PF Information Center, Legal Support Police Direction, Drug Control Police, Special Support Police, Mounted Police, Bike Police, Public Reserve Police, Border Police, Coast Guard National Service, Air Surveillance Service, Police Intervention Unit, National Police, K-9 Police Unit, Motorized Police and Police Sappers (Explosive Experts).
As of 2001, the country has been divided into ten Police Regions. These regions comprise the 1st Commissary based in San Jose, the 2nd in Alajuela, the 3rd in Cartago, the 4th in Heredia, the 5th in Liberia, the 6th in Puntarenas, the 7th in Buenos Aires, the 8th in Upala, the 9th in Limon, and the 10th in Coto Brus. The Commanders or Police Commissioners for each of these regions are responsible and exerts command over any police unit under his/her district, and the General Direction determines the composition of each Commissary.
The Drug Police, the Police Intervention Unit and the Special Support Police remain operational and receive considerable assistance from the Air Surveillance and National Coast Guard Services. USAF and USN assets, in turn, are actively assisting the Costa Rican authorities in internal security. The Costa Ricans policemen are equipped with small arms, particularly 9mm Jericho pistols, 9mm UZI SMGs, and 5.56x45mm NATO M16 and Galil rifles.
VENCER O MORIR: PANAMA
“Victory or Death” proved not to be a good motto for the Panamanian military forces. The US invasion in December 1989, crippled the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF). With the PDF gone, the government established a National Police Force for urban and rural law enforcement functions and for Canal Zone defense.
Prior to the invasion, the PDF counted with airborne elements within the 700 members of the Battalion 2000. The Battalion 2000 comprised the Aquila Maneuvering Company and the Furia Air Assault Company; the Battalion was complemented with the Mechanized and the Fire Support companies based at Cimarron Fort. The PDF also counted with the Tigre 1st Airmobile Company based at Las Tinajitas, and the Puma 2nd Airmobile Company based at Tucuman airport. In addition to these outfits, there was a Special Security Antiterror Unit (Unidad Especial de Seguridad Antiterrorista) based at La Comandancia, Panama City. The Commando Unit deployed it’s A and B Tactical Operations Groups at Espinar Fort.
During my last visit to Panama, Didacio L. Camargo, Chief of the National Police Public Relations Department, assured me that those troops I have observed in the yard were not elite or “militarized” personnel. In fact, he assured all the present forces perform strictly police functions. Nevertheless, upon my arrival to what is now the National Police Headquarters (the former-Comandancia), there were some 50 tough looking individuals. All of them sported US BDUs in green color, matched to boonie hats, and commercial black Individual Integrated Fighting System Tactical Load Bearing Vest (ITLBV). Weapons on view were M16 rifles and Taiwanese T65 models. They appear to have spent considerable amount of time in the jungle, and their appearance was in contrast to the clean khakis used by the other troops in the base. Camargo explained that they were all from the Border Division, and they performed patrols deep in the rain forest. This equipment was necessary since the usual all-khaki uniform and single pistol are inadequate for such tasks. Nevertheless, they are strictly police officers in rural tasks.
As with the rest of the Central American Special Operations units, the Panamanian Special Operations Border Police Division outfits are increasingly used in police functions, and operate against kidnapping rings, and drug traffickers. Their operations along the Darien Jungle are increasing. These units are desperately trying to contain the Colombian troubles from spilling over to the rest of Central America.
1) This has been a “normal” practice throughout the region, even in the Salvadoran and the Guatemalan Armies during the highlight of the war.
2) According to some sources, the accurate and timely SAR report on the Nicaraguan Naval Force-National Army late last year has been cause for some accusations and conspiracy theories in that tiny Central American country. It appears that the US government offered military aid, particularly to reinforce the naval service, soon after our publication. This led some individuals to speculate collaboration between this author and the CIA. The charges could not be more ridiculous. Expansion of knowledge by reading is commendable and highly recommended to anyone-more so to our federal civil servants. The author recommends that those Nicaraguans making such accusations learn to read, and practice it. Perhaps with time they will learn to write, so whatever criticism they have can be published, exposed, analyzed and discussed in a public forum.
3) This Author thanks the assistance of Lic. Urena Mena and other members of the new Police Ministry
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