By Julio A. Montes

Central America was a hot bed of counterinsurgency warfare between 1960 and late 1990. In order to define the region it is important to indicate that geographically Central America comprises five “traditional” countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica). All of them gained their independence from Spain, when the Vice-King was forced out in Guatemala on 15 September 1821. Belize and Panama are also geographically linked to Central America, but are “younger” states. Belize gained its independence from the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, and it remains a member of the British Commonwealth. Panama gained independence from the Grand Colombia in 1903.

The long insurgency wars between government forces and revolutionaries in the region date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. The government initiatives were spearheaded by a number of elite military outfits. Here is their background:


Guatemala experienced the longest counterinsurgency war in Central America. The conflict finally ended in 1996, after some 35 years of warfare between government forces and Communist-inspired guerrillas.

The Guatemalan Army developed into the most effective counterinsurgency machine in the region. Special Operations were run by two groups of highly trained commandos; know as “KAIBILES.” There were also two Parachute Battalions, which were employed as light infantry. For urban warfare and rural policing, there was a semi-independent Mobile Military Police Corps, with two MPA battalions. The Air Force organized a Special Security Group for protection and immediate response, while the Navy deployed Naval Infantry Battalions known as “CAIMANES.”

Army Spokesman, Colonel Edwin Gonzalez Ochoa and LtCol Erick Estuardo Escobedo Ayala provided information during my most recent visit to piece together the elusive history of these units:

The KAIBIL was originally designed as an intense Ranger/Jungle Expert skill course. The Commando Course was established in January 1975 at El Infierno, Municipality of La Polvora, Melchor de Mencos District, Peten Province. The Commando School runs until March 4, and it is open only to cadets from the National Military Academy. However, the “Commando” term was not well liked because of its British origins1. One of the instructors of the course suggested the term “KAIBIL.” KAIBIL BALAM was an Indian chief who was never captured by the conquering Spaniards. KAIBIL in Quiche means: Wise men, astute and strong as two tigers.

The KAIBIL training center is reopened later in 1975 for all male airborne-qualified, members of the armed forces. In January 1989, Instructive 3-800001 transferred the KAIBIL Training Center from El Infierno to the old ZM23 garrison at Poptun, Peten. Since 29 January 1990, the KAIBILES have been organized into the KAIBIL Training and Operations Center. This outfit comprised the KAIBIL School, the Professional Galled School, a KAIBIL Support & Services Company, 1st Strategic Reserve Infantry Battalion, and the KAIBIL Special Forces Unit. The KAIBIL Special Forces Unit has deployed two KAIBIL Special Operations Groups. In 1997 the KAIBIL Special Forces Unit added two KAIBIL companies to the order of battle while retaining its two Spec Ops Groups. The two companies are to operate in more “conventional” counterinsurgency and light infantry tasks, while the groups operate in deep reconnaissance and Spec Ops strikes.

The weapons of these elite soldiers are conventional. The Kaibiles received the first Galil rifles in 1976, along with OR-201 ballistic helmets. The helmets were replaced in the field with either a “boonie” hat while in patrol or the distinctive maroon beret in field garrisons. For close quarter’s combat, the Kaibiles preferred the UZI or Mini-UZI submachine guns. The main support weapon was the FN MAG 58 GPMG in 7.62x51mm NATO. Before IMI came out with the Micro-Galil, the Guatemalan War Material Service had developed a rifle from the Short-Galil, with similar characteristics to the more recent Micro-Galil. A couple of prototypes made their way to the Kaibiles for trials. Some units have been re-equipped with the M16A2 rifle, with the M4 Carbine replacing the Short-Galil. Some M203 or M79 grenade launchers are also encountered. The Kaibiles also sport the IDF early “Ephob” (web gear) UZ-001, matched to US tropical BDUs in “woodland” camouflage pattern.

The KAIBIL Training and Operations Center today provides for the following training courses: KAIBIL course for Officers, KAIBIL course for troops, Professional Galled course (Galonista Profesional), Sniper Course for Officers, Sniper Course for Special Forces. The KAIBILES are organized in Groups with each Group comprises five Detachments. Each Detachment counts with 15 enlisted men and one officer. A qualification tab is provided to all those who graduate from the Spec Ops course, but the maroon beret is reserved to those members of the KAIBIL Special Forces Unit.

The PARACAIDISTAS were officially organized on 1 August 1962, when the Army established the Parachute Platoon under the command of Lt. Rolando Asturias and 2Lt Ricardo Fuentes Juarez. By this time, the Guatemalan civil war was increasing in intensity, and US Special Forces had traveled to the former US-occupied coastal airstrip in San Jose, Escuintla, to train government troops. On 30 June 1963, the 1st Quetzales Paratroop Riflemen Company was established and dispatched to Retalhuleu. The USSF Team trained and equipped the Parachute Commando in May 1967, comprising the 1st Paratrooper Company, the 2nd Pentagono Paratroop Riflemen Company, and the Special Forces Company. The Parachute Commando is based at San Jose and it is named Base Militar de Tropas Paracaidistas General Felipe Cruz. The black beret is adopted as a distinctive symbol of the unit due to its affinity and similar mission to the US Rangers.

In 1968, the Parachute Commando assimilated the Special Forces Company as the 3rd Flecha Paratroop Riflemen Company. On 19 January 1982, the Army established the 1st Paratrooper Battalion, comprising the Quetzales (1st), Pentagono (2nd), and Flecha (3rd) Paratroop Riflemen Companies. By August 1988, two Parachute Battalions had been established. The first one deploys the Quetzales (1st), Pentagono (2nd), Flecha (3rd), and Vencedores (4th) Paratroop Riflemen companies. The Second Para Bn. deploys Cobras (1st), Relampagos (2nd), Olmecas (3rd) and Tecun (4th) Paratroop Riflemen companies. Like the Kaibiles, the Paras retain the OR-201 Hemet for airborne jump and urban patrols in a unique sand and green camouflage paint. The black beret is another emblem of these troops. Some units of the Paratroopers have been equipped with the M16A2 rifle. Unlike the Kaibiles, the Paras use the US ALICE web gear, and standard “plain” Army uniforms in the US M86 “woodland” rip-stop pattern.

The CUERPO DE POLICIA MILITAR AMBULANTE (Mobile Military Police Corps) was organized to function as a rural police force and to provide support to the National Police. The Corps eventually comprised two battalions, including a K-9 unit. The Corps was disbanded in 1997 as part of the Peace Agreement.

The third airborne trained special operations outfit of the Guatemalan military during the civil war was the TACTICAL SECURITY UNIT of the Guatemalan Air Force. This was born when in 1954 the Army decided to raise a security detail to protect La Aurora Air Force Base. The Guatemalan Air Force (FAG) Security Detachment was established with one Infantry Coy. A second infantry company came from ZM4.

On 25 February 1955, under Order 1671) the unit was reduced to an infantry company, reinforced with one platoon from other garrisons, and received the name of FAG Riflemen Company. A Second Security and Control Riflemen Company was raised in June 1957 (Order 1957), and under Order 2009, the 1st Coy was called 1ra Compañia de Fusileros del Agrupamiento Tactico de la FAG).

On 21 August 1957, the Army established the FAG Tactical Security Group (AGRUPAMIENTO TACTICO DE SEGURIDAD [ATS] DE LA FAG). The Tactical Security Group would operate with 3 ATS Coys, and a HQ Group. The Military Air Police Commando was established in November 1983. By 2002, the complete ATS had been disbanded, replaced with an Air Police Security Group under FAG control.

The Guatemalan Army established two Naval Infantry Platoons on 1 August 1964 and by February 1970 the 1st Naval Infantry Company had been established. A fifth platoon was raised in 1972, and assigned to security duties along the Pacific coast. In October 1983, the Naval Infantry Battalion was established with the 1st & 2nd Naval Infantry Coys from Banatlan (Atlantic Naval Base), and the 1st & 2nd NI Coys from Banapac (Pacific Naval Base). By 2003, the Guatemalan Navy divided its Naval Infantry Battalion in two Coys for operations along Banatlan, and two Coys for Banapac. All those joining this elite unit must attend the Curso de Adiestramiento de Infanteria de Marina (CAIMAN).

All these forces have been equipped with mainly small arms, and operate as light infantry. The sidearm is the either the 9mm M9 Beretta, and the IAI Jericho, although there are still some elderly Czech CZ75 pistols in service. The preferred submachine guns are the MP12 Beretta and the UZI. Most troopers carry either the 5.56x45mm NATO M16A2 or the Galil. Guatemala was the first customer of the Galil outside Israel.


The former British-Honduras gained independence from England in 1981. The region adopted the name of Belize in 1973, and consists of 22,960 square kilometers of jungle-covered territory between Guatemala, Mexico and the Caribbean.

The first organized military unit was the Prince Regent, Royal Honduran Militia raised in 1814. In the 1970s, this organization transformed into the Belize Volunteer Guards (BVG), and the Belize Defense Force (BDF) was organized in 1982 with one infantry battalion. A second and third infantry battalions have been raised since.

Due to the nature of its territory, and to the small size of its army, the complete force is jungle-qualified, with special operations support coming from British SAS. The Jungle Warfare Center is an intrinsic part of the BDF, and it utilizes 200 square kilometers of rain forest reserved exclusively for training the locals to fight in the regional environment.

The center offers the Jungle Survival Basic Course (JSBC), of three days duration, to military and civilian personnel. The Jungle Warfare Basic Course, of 14 days duration, is available to enlisted personnel. This emphasizes survival, navigation, communications, weapons handling and tactics.

The Jungle Warfare Instructor Course, lasting 38 days, prepares leaders to operate in jungle environment, and teaches them to plan and conduct jungle training at sub-unit levels. Those who attend the JWIC are also explosive-qualified and are trained in all aspects of boat operations, preparation of helicopter landing sites, supervising and conducting live-fire training, planning and conducting fitness training.

BDF soldiers prefer the US tropical BDU to the temperate DPM. Although there is a supply of FN FAL and SA80 rifles, the small arms of preference are the M16A1 with the Sterling 9mm submachine gun, and the FN MAG 58 GPMG, M2 Carl Gustaf rocket launcher, and 81mm light mortar.

The mission of the BDF is twofold, to defend national territory from foreign invaders and to assists law enforcement officials in anti-drug operations, under the motto “Shoulder to Shoulder.”


US Special Forces Mobile Training Teams helped to organize the 1st and 2nd Special Forces Groups in El Salvador in 1967. These were, in essence, light infantry companies trained in the US Ranger manner. These two companies were based at San Vicente Barracks, and in 1969 they were transferred to Morazan Province. Reinforced with National Guard and Treasury Police units, the Special Force Battalion launched a conventional flank advance on Honduran territory during the 100-day war. After the war, the groups were broken up into the Commando Course cadre, deployed in Morazan, and the Special Force Group based at Ilopango. During the initial days of the civil war, these two outfits were broken up and dispersed among the many garrisons, or operated in tiny terrorist cells, and so-called anti-terrorist teams.

The 1st Parachute Company was established in July 1963, comprising 126 paratroopers. This was increased to 165 men in 1965 and renamed the Parachute Squadron. In 1974, the unit received a second Para company and became the Parachute Battalion. In 1983 the Para Battalion went from the Air Force control to the Army, and its strength doubled.

For most of the 1970s, the Para Battalion was used as a rapid response unit and light infantry. However, the brunt of the counterinsurgency operations fell on the shoulders of the National Guard. The Guard had been nominally established as a Rural Police, but its powers and reputation had increased since 1973. In October of that year, the National Guard acted as a counter-coup unit, beating up the 1st Infantry Brigade and the Artillery Brigade in heavy urban combat. The Guard was the first “military” outfit to equip with modern Heckler & Koch G3 rifles and HK21 machineguns in 1968. Guardsmen could be distinguished by their “Prussian-style” uniforms, which traced its origins to 1912, when Spanish advisors organized the National Guard. The Guard often deployed teams of two soldiers. The first pair of National Guardsmen killed during the terrorist war period in the early 1970s, was ambushed while on sentry duty at the local General Hospital. Thereafter, the teams were increased to three members, and eventually, the Guard operated in squads or platoons.

Although small squads of “National Guard Commandos” were organized, and these sported different combat uniforms, the Guard performed combat operations in full “Prussian-style” tunics. The National Guard was relegated to normal rural police tasks, and as a static force in charge of sentry duty in government buildings and economically important assets.

Starting in 1981, the Salvadorian military transformed under the influence of massive US assistance. The ATLACATL battalion was organized by LtCol Domingo Monterrosa Barrios and Major Jose Armando Azmitia Melara. The Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalion (BIRI - Batallon de Infanteria de Reaccion Inmediata) Atlacatl comprised eight companies and a headquarters group. The idea was of “permanent” deployment, with at least four companies always in the field, and at least two companies back in reserve. The Salvadoran Army eventually established five BIRIs (Atlacatl, Atonal, Arce, Belloso, and Bracamonte), and re-organized the Parachute Battalion along BIRI standards.

The local garrisons established a number of elite outfits for COIN, Recce, and other limited tasks. Even the police units established their own elite combat outfits, with the National Police deploying the Pantera Antiterrorist Battalion and Special Response Team (ERE - Equipo de Reaccion Especial), and the Treasury Police deployed the Libertadores Antiterrorist Battalion and the Antiterrorist Commando Team (CEAT-Comando Especial Anti-terrorista). Even the National Guard fielded a dedicated combat unit: the 15 de Septiembre Antiterrorist Battalion.

The Navy organized the 1ra Compañía de Infanteria de Marina, with 40 men in October 1981. This outfit is increased to 120 men in January 1982 with the training assistance of the USN SEALs. The company changed its name to Compañía de Comandos Navales a year later. By 1984, the formation has reached Battalion strength, and it was renamed the Special Forces Battalion, comprising 380 men who were distributed between the Security Element, the Patrol Boat Gunners, and the Piranha and Barracuda Commando Companies. For more conventional work, the Navy established the “October 10th” Naval Infantry Battalion with assistance from the USMC.

At the end of the war, all of these units were either disbanded or assimilated into other units. In 1992, the Salvadoran military established the Special Forces Group (Grupo de Fuerzas Especiales). The unit is later renamed Airborne and Reconnaissance Group (Agrupacion de Salto y Reconocimiento), and in 1994 it becomes the Special Forces Command.

The Special Forces Command deploys the Airborne Battalion, with four squadrons for peacetime strength. The maroon beret has been adopted by the unit.

There is also the Special Forces Group (GOE - Grupo de Operaciones Especiales). The GOE has its origins in the two Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (PRALs - Patrullas de Reconocimiento y Alcance Largo), established in a single company with assistance from the CIA in November 1982. By early 1983, the Army had established the “Hatchet” units, exploiting the special techniques of the PRALs to create a strike commando unit. Today, the GOE comprises a reconnaissance company with two PRALs, and two “Hatchet” reaction companies. The PRALs are divided in teams of six men, while the strike forces utilize three teams of 20 men each. The Naval Commando Company that survived the war has been added to the GOE’s order of battle. The black beret is worn by these commandos due to their affinity with the LRRPs of the US Rangers.

For antiterrorist tasks, the Special Forces Command depends on the CEAT. The CEAT - organized by the Treasury Police - not only survived the war, but it is now tasked with anti-terrorists missions, and VIP protection. A dark green beret is their symbol.

More recently, the Salvadoran Airborne Battalion traded their M16A1 rifles for Fabrique Nationale FNCs, and they are testing the FN P90 as their next generation close-quarter weapon. The COMANDO DE FUERZAS ESPECIALES3 remains as the only airborne elite unit of the Salvadorian Army, ready to perform its mission under its motto: Rapidez y Fuerza (Speed and Force).

  • 1 At the time there was considerable tension between Guatemala and Great Britain over Belize.
  • 2 For details on deployment and history of the various Salvadoran Special Forces outfits see: Montes, Julio. Salvadoran Commandos & Special Forces. Special Ops Vol. 10, Concord Publications.
  • 3 SAR previously listed the small arms utilized by the Salvadoran Army. The publication of the various systems in use and criticism of the inefficient and corrupt procurement program has caused some tension and threats from some Salvadoran factions against the author.

  • This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N9 (June 2003)
    and was posted online on November 8, 2013


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