El Salvador – No Longer a Rag-Tag Army
By Julio Montes

The Marine looked sharp. He was dressed in the new MARPAT green camouflage pattern, cut to the US M1967 jungle style and matched to a cover of the same material; he wore the Special Forces harness and carried the M4A4 Carbine. The same standard was observed in the hands of elements of the DM4 from Comandos de Morazán and other troops. This was definitely a leap forward from the rag-tag look observed only a few months before when President Mauricio Funes had ordered the military to the streets in an attempt to curb rising criminal activity. In early September 2010, the government made associations with street gangs illegal. Late in that same month, public transportation was severely disrupted for three days by a strike enforced by street gangs, angry at a new law. President Mauricio Funes introduced the measure in July - a month after suspected members of the M-18 gang opened fire on a bus and set it afire killing 17 passengers. With troops in the streets, the neglected state of the military apparatus became more than evident. The soldiers started to patrol in decrepit vehicles while carrying worn out weapons.

The 20,000 strong Salvadorian National Civilian Police (PNC) equipped with 1,500 semiautomatic Galil (AR & SAR models), received hundreds of SAF submachine guns from Chile. The GRP and other elite police outfits received MP5s, over 200 HK-33A5 and HK53A5 rifles and hundreds of Colt M4A1 Carbines. The Army transferred 700 T65 and hundreds of M16 rifles. The military also indicated in 2005-2006 that they had large quantities (600+) of brand-new Argentinean FMK-3 SMGs, which after the war were dumped in storage. In 2010, private security guards were observed carrying the machine pistol with them, but if still available, the FMK-3 could also be handed over to the police. Regardless of the weapon’s dubious reputation, it is understood that with quality ammunition, the FMK-3 is a reliable weapon.

The U.S. began to replace the G3 rifles in the hands of the Salvadorian Army in 1981 with the delivery of 11,868 AR-15A1 R613 (M16A1); followed by another 20,743 M16s purchased with FMS funds for El Salvador in 1982. Many of these “new” rifles were actually leftovers from Vietnam. Eventually, another 45,160 AR-15A1 R613 followed, to include more than 500 CAR-15A1 R639 (XM177E2 Commando – typified as M16A2 for El Salvador) to equip the Mechanized Infantry and officer Corps and hundreds of CAR-15A1 R653 (M16A1) Carbines starting in 1985, and even brand-new M16s supplied by Springfield Armory.

The Army Special Forces (CFE) consists of some 1,200 elements of the CFE, distributed among the Parachutist Battalion (functioning as a Ranger unit), the Special Antiterrorist Commando (CEAT), the Naval Commandos, and the Special Operations Group (GOES – comprising the long range reconnaissance commando PRAL, and the attack commando HACHA). Some 10 years ago, the government purchased 600 FNC-90-00 and FNC-92-00 Carbines to equip the parachute battalion while the GOES was equipped with M16A2 Carbines and M16A2 Commandos and M4 with Mil-Std 1913 sight rail and retractable stock. CFE elements were the only ones to receive Model 700 (M24), M14 and Model 82A1 Barrett rifles and M249 SAW light machine guns. In 2006 the Salvadorians purchased 500 Colt M16A4, and a number of HK-416 models for the CFE. The M16A4 were followed by a $209,629 contract from TACOM with Colt in 2007 for more than 64,460 M4, and another one in 2008 for more M4A1 Carbines to be delivered to El Salvador under FMS. These numbers appear a little high, but if that is the case, the better. The weapons were part of a US $7 million donation for the Salvadorian participation in Iraq, and they came along with 21 M1151 and 4 M1165 Up-armored Humvees, equipped with a shielded 360-degree gunner turret and brand-new M2HB. With the arrival of the M4, the Para Battalion relinquished its FNC Carbines to the Military Police, replacing the MP5.

In excess of 1,142 M60 machine guns were delivered between 1981 and 1992, along with more than 100 M60Ds. There is also a report that 600 M60 machine guns were acquired at $1 each when the U.S. was dumping the M60 for the new MAG M240 around 2000. With so many M60s in inventory, El Salvador should not be requiring new fire support weapons for awhile. No need to re-invent the wheel and the weapon can simply be overhauled and retrofitted/upgraded to M60E4/MK 43 with kits already available in the market. With this simpler fashion it could become the machine gun of the “future” for El Salvador.

The military received 1,704 M79 and 1,423 M203 grenade launchers as well. The M79 remains in service and is in need of a face-lift instead of looking into the new M320 model. The original M79 butt-stock could be replaced with composite plastic furniture, which can be purchased from commercial sources. A few years back Milkor, from South Africa, exchanged the original stock of the M79 for a swing-around model, a pistol grip was added, and a new OEG sight fitted. More recently, the Defcom M79 has been mentioned, sporting a front hand guard manufactured from composite materials, top of barrel fitted with Mil-Std 1913 Picatinny rail system, detachable flip-up scale graduated to 425 meters rear sight, folding stock, M16 style pistol grip, and other improvements.

In Turmoil Once More

A riot broke out in January, 2007 when inmates of the Apanteos Prison picked up makeshift weapons and started fighting each other. Military and police support units had to be called to quell the revolt, while 21bodies lay in the courtyard in the most grotesque manner: stabbed, beheaded, dismembered and hung - and the pictures made the world. In November 2010, another riot broke out inside the same prison, leaving two dead, and 28 injured. At about the same time another revolt broke out at La Esperanza Jail (better known as Mariona) in San Salvador’s suburbs of Mejicanos, leaving 13 injured; and in Ilobasco jail, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of San Salvador, a fire left at least 16 inmates dead and 22 injured.

These are not your average prison inmates. The country has 19 prisons with capacity for 8,110 inmates, but holds 23,840. Some 7,300 are gang members. According to some, the inmates hold complete arsenals hidden inside the jails. Furthermore, the jails have been used as command and control centers by the gangs, using cells phones, couriers (visitors), and others to order hits and control their “soldiers” in their neighborhoods.

By 2011, more than 8,500 troops were involved in internal security duties, and 800 more were needed. This time, the Army was no longer under the control of the police (PNC), operating under military operational commands instead: Zumpul, in charge with surveillance of 62 “blind-spots” at the border, and Zeus, charged with general preventive patrols. The troops have been providing partial security unsuccessfully under the command of the PNC at least since 1997, deploying 2,500 soldiers and 14 Cashuats APC to the Joint Task Force Groups (GTC - Grupos de Tarea Conjunta) under the PNC in 1999. In 2005, the government ordered 1,000 soldiers to the streets following the murder of two police officers outside a night club, and continued violence.

Under the third military operational command San Carlos the Army has taken perimeter security of prisons in Quezaltepeque (La Libertad), Cojutepeque (Cuscatlán), Ciudad Barrios (San Miguel), Izalco (Sonsonate), Chalatenango and San Francisco Gotera (Morazán) while motorized units equipped with M1151 Up-armored Humvees patrol the perimeter of “Zacatras,” the Maximum security prison at Zacatecoluca City (La Paz). In November 2010, the Army took La Esperanza Prison, in the suburbs of San Salvador, and a month later, with the support from a couple of helicopters and two M1151 Humvees equipped with M2HB, 128 soldiers moved against Apanteos prison. At the time, the jail - designed to hold only 1,800 of the most dangerous inmates - held almost 3,600, some 500 of them with affiliation to the M-18 gang.

Weapons support?

If the gangs made a stand in their urban turfs, fighting in the heavily populated areas of El Salvador make for a difficult proposition as already tested during the civil-war, and particularly during three weeks in November 1989, when guerrillas dominated San Salvador. There are few adobe houses left in San Salvador and other cities since most are now made of brick and cement, even in the shantytowns – thanks to U.S. Aid.

During the civil war, the U.S. delivered some 379 M-67 RCLs and some 791 M72 LAAWs. The Salvadorian Army purchased 50 M40A1s from Spain and Israel. All these weapons could be used with great effect in urban fighting. The M40A1 remains as a fearsome gun with awesome firepower, but of little use as it is deployed today. Those M40A1 in use by the Infantry could be modified to the Austrian towed variant (the 10.6 cm rPAK M40A1), and the Cavalry model mounted on M1152 EC and M1167 Humvees modified to hold the M40A1 instead of the TOW. The weapons need to be refurbished and upgraded with laser range finders (LRF), electronic sight and/or thermal and night vision systems to make it an all-weather/day and night tool. The M1167 comes with a Gunners Protection Kit optimized to deflect black-blast and allowing a 360 degree arc of fire. If unable to do the job with the 106mm, what about using the 90mm recoilless rifle instead? Well, the M67 RCL was too heavy and now is too old and worn-out. There have been two accidental explosions during training. The M67 should be replaced with RPG-7. Why the choice of this weapon? Reliable, cheap, soldier-proof, and hundreds were captured from the FMLN guerrillas.

Gun Trucks: Project M

To reduce casualties, and instead of blasting their way in, the military would move into these neighborhoods under the protection of up-armored vehicles to dislodge and/or discourage resistance, much like when it moved against Zacatras and Apanteos jails. Problem is: little armored support and transports. The Humvees provide for the only tactical motorized military response unit in the country, and the vehicles have greatly improved the effectiveness of presence patrols, but more are needed.

El Salvador built 40 semi-armored Cashuat gun trucks (VBA) and 26 APC (VBTP) between 1984 and 1985 based on the M37B 3/4 ton pickup. In 1994-1995, the local armed forces workshop upgraded two examples using M35 truck parts and axles (Cashuat-II?). In 1998 two other examples were modified accordingly at the Cavalry Regiment base. Today, the Cashuats cannot be used because the fleet was never upgraded to Cashuat-II, it lacks spares and their bullet resistant glass has expired and darkened, giving very little or no visibility to the driver. Between 2004 and 2005 the Army developed the new generation of gun trucks to replace the Cashuat. The High Command showed us a slide of pictures of a truck chassis modified with a forward armored cabin, much to the style of a HMETT, with a turret with two recycled HS-404 20mm cannons from unserviceable Ouragan planes mounted on the bed. It has been indicated that initially an M55 triple mount was installed, but later replaced with the new gun platform. The turret was electrically driven for transverse and elevation, and it suffered of a quick response to tracking controls, making it somewhat imprecise for either ground or air targets. After the first prototype had been completed, an audit found some $25,000 missing from the $70,000 allocated to the project, which brought it to a halt for several months. Later the Army retook the basic concept, but with a different model in mind. A new prototype was started, but never completed. At one point or another, four new Ford truck chassis were acquired, and at least two were modified with a new more powerful engine. In 2010, all funds dried up, and the Army halted all research and development of Proyecto M. When we visited the CALFA in 2011, it was indicated that the Army would retake and complete the prototype by March 2011. We are still waiting, but all requests for pictures have been denied.

During the civil-war, the Army modified 14 Magirus-Deutz 7-ton Jupiter and other heavy trucks (nickname Mazinger), and 20 F-250 pickups (nickname Astroboy). But those machines are long gone without replacements. Now, even with the present emergency on-going, to renew Project M with Ford truck chassis does not make much sense from a logistical point of view, and it would be ridiculous to hope for anything like MRAPs. An alternative could be to up-armor examples of the Army’s 7400 6x6 trucks (with DT530 diesel 275hp/800lb-ft engine). These are the civilian version of the International 7000-MV. The 7400 truck chassis is a popular platform for APCs around the world due to its extremely strong chassis and engine which allows for full protection on all sides and a V-hull underneath against blast. As an alternative, the 7400 SFA 4x4 can be used, which differs in having a MxxForce DT 285hp turbo diesel engine, matched to the same Allison 3500 EVS transmission, for speeds up to 128 km/h (80 mph). Better yet, a new Salvadorian gun truck could be based on the latest Medium Tactical Vehicle (MTV) with the DXM independent suspension, and also already designed to accommodate a variety of survivability and armoring solutions derived from the International MaxxPro MRAP. The U.S. compromised to supply 104 trucks, and it is hoped that all of them are of the new International 7000MV series, to include a few MTV, and the 7000MV tractor 6x6. According to Navistar Defense, the MTV, in addition to the DXM, incorporates automatic traction control, anti-lock brakes, self-diagnostics, and advanced electronics systems with optional central tire inflation system (CTIS). To top it, a TCM-20 or the reworked HS404 gun-turret from Project M could be mounted on the bed. One more option would be to create something similar to the TCM-20 using the recycled HS-404 from the Ouragans. Reality is that the Regiment lacks even the funds to refurbish the Cashuats, much less for acquiring new armored gun trucks.

Authorities Outgunned

Why gun trucks and/or armored vehicles and support guns for internal security in El Salvador? Just look at your local PD in the U.S., and notice that the first thing out when hunting a dangerous criminal is a SWAT team and an armored tactical response police vehicle. For the same security reasons, this applies to the authorities in El Salvador. Furthermore, the firepower likely to be encountered in Central America in the hands of the bad guys can be a lot greater than in any street in the U.S. In April 2010, for instance, a group of gangsters ambushed a rival gang at San Jose Park in downtown San Salvador, throwing a hand-grenade, and leaving more than 15 wounded; it was the third attack with explosives within the year. Another 15 wounded and one dead would be the result of another attack with a M67 hand grenade at the Hula Hula Park, in San Salvador.

The situation is compounded by a flood of heavy weapons in the hands of organized crime and drug cartels becoming well-armed illegal armies on their own, with a sophisticated International network. A few years back the local press reported that 40 Central American gangsters attended military training at La Laguna El Tigre, in Petén, Guatemala, among them 12 Salvadorian members of MS-13. The training came courtesy of the Mexican Cartels of Los Zetas and Beltran Leyva’s. Salvadorian authorities now claim that members of the MS-13 gang had formed an alliance with Los Zetas, and operate as foot soldiers and human traffickers for Mexico's cartels. In April 2010, Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes stated that there was information that the (Mexican) cartels had entered El Salvador with exploratory purposes. These are also a present threat to the U.S. with MS-13 - founded in California back in the 1980s – having nexus in 42 States and the District of Columbia.

Although U.S. authorities pay more attention to the situation in Mexico, most of the problems related to the drug war in the south go unreported. In 2008, under the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the U.S. offered $65 million dollars in assistance to the drug war in the area, to be distributed among eight countries, while under the same program Mexico was scheduled to receive $400 million a year. In October 2010, President Mauricio Funes presented a $900 million Central American anti-drug-trafficking plan to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and asked the Obama administration to help fund it.

In the meantime, the Salvadoran military has established eight task forces of 350 men each as part of Zeus Command, and tasked with occupying the twenty-nine areas with the highest crime rates in the country, to include large sectors in Santa Ana, Sonsonate, San Salvador, La Libertad and San Miguel. However, the gangs have been detected moving their activities to other previously considered “pacified” regions in Morazán and Chalatenango. Any momentum must be exploited by authorities and to be used to develop the investigative arm of the police in a hurry, and to overhaul the judicial system. The respite will not last since soldiers historically make for poor cops while the blood-bath continues. If there is no change of direction, the country is headed to a failed State immersed in another civil-conflict.

Hillbilly Armor for Allies

In 2009, when the Army was ordered to the street in crime prevention and “gang busting” operations, the need for protected patrol vehicles was so great that four AML-90 models still-operational came out to patrol Santa Tecla and Lourdes. Two of them had their original gasoline engines exchanged to a Nissan diesel QD type, but these vehicles are unreliable and break down easily due to their decrepit state, and most were observed in February 2011 dumped along the UR416 and Cashuats in the Regiment’s graveyard. One of the diesel AMLs is reported now in the Military Museum.

In 2005, the U.S. offered twenty M1114s and four M1116s to the Salvadorian Army. Up to that point, the Salvadorians looked with disdain towards the Humvee, much due to their fortunes, or misfortunes in Iraq. It happened that upon arrival to Najab in 2004, the Salvadorian Army received the same crappy “Hill Billie” armored M998 used by U.S. forces in those early days. These were prone to breakdowns and provided little or no protection. It was not until the arrival of Colonel Víctor Manuel Bolaños, with the VIII Salvadorian Cuscatlán Battalion rotation, that the Salvadorians got a taste of the M1151. The colonel had expressed his dismay and objection that the U.S. provided brand-new Up-armored Humvees to the newly arriving Georgian troops while his men were stuck with junk. Bolaños prevailed and the M998s were exchanged in 2007. The M1151 is basically a new type of vehicle, mounting a GEP V8, 6.5L Turbocharged Diesel engine, developing 190Hp, matched to a 4 speed automatic GTP. It also comes with a single high-output A/C condenser, improved HVAC assembly, heavy-duty variable-rate springs, and reinforced front body mounts, Koch quick-release seat belts, automatic fire extinguishing system (AFES), improved steering geometry and heavy-duty ball joints.

At home, the Salvos wanted M113 APCs instead, but the U.S. made it clear that those were available for purchase only. The US finally delivered 25 M1151/M1165 examples instead of the M1114/M1116 in 2009-2010. The M1151 are a far cry from the semi-armored Dodge M37B 3/4 ton gun trucks, known as Cashuat VBA, used by the Salvadorian Army. In November 2010, the New Hampshire Army National Guard provided some assistance in maintenance training, and when we visited the Regiment in February 2011, a NH-NG general, along with elements of the U.S. MILGROUP, was visiting the Regiment, pending their deployment to Afghanistan with U.S. forces. This gives us the opportunity to specify that what the military still needs at home is a fleet of some 32 M1152 protected pickup variants to replace the Cashuat VBTP in the protected troop transport role. The M1152 could come with either the AM General Enhanced IAP/Armored Kit “A” and “B” for gapless mine and ballistic protection or the BAE ATC Kit. Another alternative would be to place semi-armored TCM-20 turrets on the M1152 bed and/or to obtain second-hand overhauled M1114s. However, the Cavalry Regiment cannot do it with the money at hand and need these as donations from the U.S.

Today, the Salvadorian Cavalry Regiment is under the command of Colonel Edwin Chavarría Bolaños, and its forces are distributed among three military commands (Zumpul, San Carlos and Zeus) in assistance to civilian authorities in the present criminal uprising. The Cavalry has developed and functions under three operational plans of its own: Cuscatlán, in support of the drug war; San Bernardo, in support of assistance in case of disaster and Guardianes, operating the Join Community Support Groups (GCAC - Grupos Conjuntos de Apoyo a la Comunidad - previously designated GTC). It is noted that by early 2011 there were 300 GCACs. Each involves some three soldiers under the leadership of one or two police officers. The first 30 GCAC were deployed to 25 high crime communities, such as Nuevo Israel, Las Palmas, Iberia, San Francisco, El Hoyo, La Fosa, Santa Marta 1 & 2, El Paraíso and Lourdes. Initial plans called for 492 GCACs. However, it is clear that the Army can only provide presence as a prevention tool, but cannot dislodge organized crime and should not be a permanent solution.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (August 2012)
and was posted online on June 22, 2012


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