Combined and Interagency Ops Increase Drug Seizures in El Salvador

Combined and Interagency Ops Increase Drug Seizures in El Salvador

By Lorena Baires/Diálogo
December 11, 2018

Salvadoran authorities improved operational capabilities to intercept drug shipments and counter money laundering.

El Salvador has increased drug seizures in the last four years by boosting maritime interdiction operations, information exchange with international partners, and dismantling Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 structures. The operations that seek to counter organized crime resulted in the seizure of more than 25,000 kilograms of drugs, from 2015 to 2018.

The Salvadoran Naval Force (FNES, in Spanish), the National Civil Police’s (PNC, in Spanish) Counter Narcotics Division, and the Office of the Attorney General take part in the constant fight. They work with support from the Migration General Directorate, the Ministry of Finance, the Autonomous Port Executive Commission, and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Each institution provides information to identify, detain, and prosecute members of criminal organizations.

“Our people’s professional level and operational capabilities are high; we have equipment and technology to counter narcotrafficking, which yielded excellent results,” said Captain René Merino, commander of FNES General Staff. “We frequently adjust our patrol and surveillance plans, not only on the coast, but also in territorial waters.”

Narcotrafficking networks moved beyond the 200 nautical miles demarcating the Salvadoran exclusive economic zone in the Pacific Ocean, in their attempt to ship drugs to the United States. “Since the middle of last year [2017], we’ve seen an increase in the use of low-profile semisubmersibles to move large amounts of drugs,” Capt. Merino said. “They navigate 50 or 70 miles outside of our surveillance area and turn at the maritime border with Guatemala, because they know we can’t detain them there. Even so, we reached them and detained them in our territorial waters.”

Navigating outside national territorial waters isn’t criminals’ only known tactic; they also move through coastal areas to switch from small vessels to larger ones. “They try to bring in drugs along the coast, but they haven’t been able to do that either, because we stopped them,” Capt. Merino said. “FNES designed a constant surveillance shield that extends beyond the 200 nautical miles. It works with naval equipment specialized in constant alert.”

Attack on gangs

PNC fights relentlessly against MS-13 and Barrio 18. In 2018, PNC launched simultaneous large operations in different municipalities to dismantle gang subgroups devoted to narcotrafficking, human trafficking, and money laundering. “Operations are always aimed at capturing ringleaders, at disrupting the actions that contribute to increasing their illicit wealth and logistics,” said Howard Cotto, PNC general director. “Leaders receive money from low-ranking gang members, and then, through various businesses, they make those funds grow for the gang’s use.”

The battle started in July 2016 with Operation Jaque, which weakened MS-13’s finances and created a crisis in the organization. In September 2017, Operation Tecana was carried out, while Operation Cuscatlán was conducted in February 2018. Both aimed at dismantling business networks that laundered gang money through different front companies.

“We can’t forget that fighting against the finances of organized crime is everyone’s duty,” said Douglas Meléndez, Salvadoran Attorney General. “Preventing weapons from reaching Central American gangs is the only way to disrupt criminal organizations and keep drugs out of the reach of our youth.”

Technical cooperation

The results not only demonstrate the success of these operations, but also those of others. So far in 2018, FNES seized more than 7,000 kilograms of drugs. The support from different U.S. agencies that fight narcotrafficking has been crucial to improve results.

“Our Trident Task Force (FTT, in Spanish) trains constantly and learns new tactics, thanks to SOUTHCOM’s support. This has allowed us to make significant captures since 2015,” said Capt. Merino.

Another factor for success is the information FNES receives from the National Electronic Monitoring Center the U.S. helped establish in El Salvador in June 2012. The center tracks suspicious vessels from the time of their South American departure until entry in Salvadoran waters. “This allows us to keep close and effective communications with FTT until we can seize and detain the criminals,” Army Major General Félix Núñez, head of the FAES Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Diálogo.

“It’s important to emphasize that FTT is active around the clock to safeguard our sovereignty,” Maj. Gen. Núñez said. “FTT is considered an example of hard work in the region.”

SOUTHCOM’s support is constant. In 2017, 361 PNC officers received a specialized training course in areas such as intelligence-led police surveillance, community relations, and complex investigations. More than 280 police units also trained in asset seizures, advanced investigation, and testing skills, strengthening the effectiveness of criminal justice procedures and practices.