Rear Admiral John Merlo León assumed command of the Ecuadorian Navy on August 21, 2022.
Prior to his appointment, Rear Adm. Merlo was commander of Naval Operations and head of the First Naval Zone in Guayaquil. He was also a naval advisor to the Ministry of Defense, head of the XVII Antarctic Expedition, Ecuador’s Defense attaché in Italy, and director of the Naval Postgraduate School, among other high-ranking military positions.
Rear Adm. Merlo spoke with Diálogo about his challenges and the operations that contribute to the national fight against narcotrafficking, among other topics.
Diálogo: What is your biggest challenge?
Rear Admiral John Merlo León, commander of the Ecuadorian Navy: The biggest challenge as commander of the Navy is related to the complexity of today’s world, the speed with which scenarios change, and the capability that military forces, in this case the naval force, must have to clearly understand the ends to be achieved, the expertise necessary to establish the ways to reach those ends, and the tactical capabilities indispensable to fulfill the mission. In short, to combine ends, ways, and means in fragile scenarios, full of uncertainty, non-linear, and incomprehensible.
Therefore, part of this challenge lies in the purposes that the navy of a maritime country like Ecuador should have, and consequently make the greatest effort to promote our country’s maritime vision. Ecuador must be understood geopolitically as a State that possesses in its territorial waters great opportunities for its development, for its progress, for the welfare of present and future generations. It is therefore crucial to consolidate substantial aspects for the present and future of the country such as Ecuador’s Antarctic Policy and the National Maritime Strategy, which will contribute to strengthening the national position in the international arena, as well as to articulate in an integral way maritime management and to advance with clearly defined objectives toward the consolidation of Ecuador’s ocean politics vision.
However, it must be taken into account that all this wealth and opportunities that Ecuador has in the sea, is threatened by different elements, each with different characteristics, ranging from environmental pollution; illegal unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) with the presence of foreign flag fleets lurking in our waters; to one of the biggest scourges that our country faces at the moment, narcotrafficking. This wide range of elements forms a system that must be analyzed and understood in its magnitude since it demands an integrated and integral action of all the components of the Ecuadorian State, and consequently, in the naval field, to determine the best way to act with units adequately equipped and ready to fulfill their mission.
Therefore, it is important to execute the projects planned for the Navy and it is one of the objectives of my administration, which starts with a substantial premise: The Ecuadorian Navy is one; together, surface units, submarines, naval aviation, marine infantry, coast guard, with our logistics, personnel, and educational support bodies constitute the National Maritime Authority and we will be up to what our maritime Ecuador needs.
In this sense, the management of the Navy General Command is oriented toward three lines of action:
– Institutional strengthening to efficiently provide the services that citizens expect from their Maritime Authority.
– Watch over the resources at sea through an Operational Force with oceanic capacity that guarantees sovereignty, integrity, and security in the aquatic spaces.
– Promote the strengthening of our country’s maritime vision through integrated maritime management tools, such as the National Maritime Strategy.
These lines of action are sustained transversally by an essential element for the development and future of our Navy: the strengthening of institutional values, such as honor, discipline, loyalty, and honesty.
Diálogo: The Ecuadorian Navy’s operations contribute to the national fight against narcotrafficking. What kind of combined and joint operations do you carry out to achieve success?
Rear Adm. Merlo: The Ecuadorian Navy doctrinally classifies maritime operations into naval operations, maritime security, and protection operations, operations in support of State action, and international cooperation operations.
In relation to this question, maritime security and protection operations are carried out within the scope of the Maritime Authority and fulfilling the role of Maritime Police, under the attributions of the Coastal State, Flag and Port Authority, granted by both international conventions and national laws, especially the Organic Law of Navigation, Management of Maritime and River Safety, and Protection of Aquatic Spaces.
One of the purposes of this type of operations is the neutralization and fight against illicit activities, such as IUU, smuggling of goods and hydrocarbons, illicit trafficking of migrants, common crime, terrorism, extraction of underwater heritage, and illegal exploitation of marine resources. The latter is one of the main threats against the security and protection of Ecuador and against which the data on the number of captures made demonstrate the magnitude of the work carried out and the efficiency of our operations.
Within the framework of regional cooperation in the fight against narcotrafficking, the Ecuadorian Navy participates annually in [the Colombian Navy-led] combined multinational operation Orión, in which information is exchanged and alerts are received with intelligence to apprehend vessels transporting controlled substances within our maritime jurisdictional spaces. This operation includes the participation of the National Police and the Attorney General’s Office, since it seeks to act both on land and at sea and to have judicial support in the prosecution processes.
Likewise, as part of the binational cooperation with the United States in the fight against narcotrafficking, during 2022 a combined operation dubbed Octopus [Pulpo] was launched, aimed at increasing permanence at sea, causing surprise effect on vessels involved in narcotrafficking, improving logistics support, in addition to taking advantage of surveillance capabilities through radars, long-range drones, and liaison with naval exploration aircraft, both national and foreign. In addition, PASSEX operations have been carried out with U.S. Coast Guard vessels, exchanging information and knowledge, as well as training in procedures for visits and inspections.
Diálogo: One of the Navy’s missions is to counter illegal fishing. What progress are you making in the fight against this scourge?
Rear Adm. Merlo: On the high seas, in areas close to the Ecuadorian insular exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a fleet of foreign-flagged ships that carry out fishing activities is present periodically. This fleet is made up of some 300 vessels, among them industrial fishing boats, reefer-type factory ships for processing and storing fish, and tankers for refueling.
The Ecuadorian Navy permanently monitors and controls this fleet. When the fleet is up to a distance of about 300 nautical miles from Ecuador’s EEZ, we use various satellite monitoring and referencing systems, such as CLS, Sea Vision, Skylight, and Dark Vessel Detection to obtain information on the vessels position, trajectories, to get satellite images on request, satellite radar information, detect vessels that turn off their automatic identification system (AIS) devices, and analyze suspicious behavior.
When through this constant monitoring it is determined that these ships are approaching between 300 and 100 miles outside the EEZ, naval units including air and naval exploration units, are deployed to act directly on the threat.
It is important to point out that we act against this threat in coordination with the Foreign Ministry, so much so that a buffer zone of 100 miles has been agreed in meetings between the Foreign ministries of Ecuador and China, so that when there are ships of that flag, they do not cross those limits.
In the event that a vessel is detected entering the EEZ, we carry out inspection procedures and the vessel is apprehended, for which the capabilities of both personnel and assets are constantly being improved in order to carry out the respective prosecution, as was the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 vessel in 2017.
In 2018, Ecuador launched at the regional level a proposal for the multinational exercise called GALAPEX, which aims to improve interoperability between navies of the region to combat illegal activities in jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional waters, such as organized crime, narcotrafficking and related crimes, IUU fishing, and marine pollution, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance to the countries of the region, so as to contribute to regional governance and the protection of common maritime interests. This proposal was materialized in 2019, through virtual exercises with several participating countries. During the XXX Inter-American Naval Conference of 2022 in Lima, Peru, the Ecuadorian Navy proposed to participating countries to carry out this exercise periodically, which was accepted for its future execution.
Diálogo: How does the reincorporation of the coast guard vessel Isla Floreana help in the fight against illicit activities?
Rear Adm. Merlo: The unit was handed over to the Coast Guard Command by the Logistics General Directorate on June 10, 2022, and as of that date it has carried out various maritime security and protection operations, both in continental and insular jurisdictional waters, and we have intensified patrols in sectors where there have been high rates of criminal activities, among them theft of outboard motors, contamination of merchant ships, and assaults on vessels.
To carry out these operations, the Coast Guard Command has made an operational design for the unit to be present and guard fishing areas, merchant traffic, and coastal navigation, at different times and sectors, carrying out statutory inspections to control and verify compliance with navigation safety regulations and identify vessels suspected of conducting illegal activities.
The unit has also participated in search and rescue (SAR) operations in continental and insular waters in response to reports of missing artisanal fishing vessels, people at sea, and maritime accidents with positive results. Likewise, the unit has carried out SAR exercises with simulated evacuation of injured persons with Ecuadorian Navy helicopters.
At present, it carries out operations especially in the insular region to counter narcotrafficking, prevent and neutralize IUU fishing, carry out surveillance and control within the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and participate in SAR operations.
Diálogo: What are some advances of the Naval Aviation Command for the success of naval operations?
Rear Adm. Merlo: Naval Aviation is a pillar of the operational scheme for naval operations. The coordinated work of all air and naval exploration means to provide a clear tactical and operational panorama has been and is essential for the success of operations, for which rotary-wing, fixed-wing, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) units work in a permanently coordinated manner.
The Ecuadorian Navy is one and together Naval Aviation, Surface Units, Submarine Units, Marines, and Coast Guard form a solid system that acts and will always act to protect and provide security to our maritime interests.
Diálogo: What kind of operations are being carried out on the rivers bordering Colombia and Peru to confront criminal organizations?
Rear Adm. Merlo: In this regard, it’s important to point out that the Navy guarantees the success of operations to confront these threats through an operational scheme that, based on an analysis taking into account space, force, and time, directs its efforts to fulfill its mission. In this context, together with surface, submarine, naval aviation, and coast guard units, the Marines play an important role as part of the operational maneuver, highlighting their professionalism in carrying out riverine operations and special operations with satisfactory results.
In border rivers, maritime security and protection operations are carried out with the means assigned to Port Captaincies and Naval Checkpoints, i.e., with shallow draft speedboats. These operations include river patrols to carry out inspections and statutory controls of all vessels navigating the border rivers. Likewise, inspections of vessels and cargo are carried out upon arrival and departure. All this is supported by operational intelligence to neutralize illicit activities such as narcotrafficking, oil smuggling, arms smuggling, and common crime.
Additionally, and specifically, in the southern sector, indirect protection is provided to vessels in the shrimp, fishing, and merchant sectors through the “Safe Routes” system, which consists of river patrols of the canals during these vessels’ transit times.
Diálogo: How do you collaborate with other navies in the region and with the U.S. to strengthen your capabilities?
Rear Adm. Merlo: The Ecuadorian Navy participates annually in the Meeting of Regional Northern and Southern Border Commands, where the border situation of each country is analyzed and we establish understandings, especially to exchange information and intelligence on common threats, as well as to coordinate and cooperate in the face of maritime emergencies, among the commanders of Naval Units, Port Captaincies, and River Control Posts deployed on the common border.
The Ecuadorian Navy also collaborates with other navies in the region through agreements and memorandums of understanding for cooperation in the fight against transnational crimes, exchange of vessel information, investigation of maritime accidents, Port State inspections, marine environment preservation operations, human resources training, cooperation in the fight against IUU fishing, and support with technologies applied to maritime traffic surveillance.
As mentioned above, within the maritime security and protection operations, we carry out combined PASSEX type operations, especially with U.S. Coast Guard vessels, within the jurisdictional maritime areas, in which the capabilities of each of the participating means are combined, especially in maritime surveillance, information exchange, training, and training of the crews.
An agreement is in effect for cooperative air and naval surveillance of vessels engaged in narcotrafficking and related illicit maritime activities, which consists of carrying out operations with surface and coast guard means, as well as with U.S. government aircraft, in which military personnel from the Ecuadorian Navy and National Police are embarked, in order to detect vessels engaged in illicit activities and proceed to their apprehension.
Diálogo: On the Navy’s Twitter account, it says: “Keep informed through official accounts, fake news results in disinformation!” What actions are you taking to strengthen capabilities in information operations to counter disinformation and fake news?
Rear Adm. Merlo: The Ecuadorian Navy permanently monitors different sources of information, among them social networks, to determine the existence of this type of fake news aimed at disinformation.
The analysis of this information allows us to define the corresponding response based on different variables that are analyzed as part of the existing doctrine in order to eliminate or reduce the effects of these messages.
Additionally, considering the dynamics of this type of situations, the Ecuadorian Navy is committed to strengthen its response capabilities through the training of its personnel in information operations, the corresponding doctrinal review, and consequently the reorganization of its structure to act adequately and effectively.
Our institution, the noble Ecuadorian Navy, always navigates the course, having as a guiding light service to our citizens, updating its procedures, ensuring every day that its capabilities are improved with firmness, transparency, courage, and honor to fulfill our mission.