El Salvador: Sumpul Command Troops Combat Smugglers, Gangs

El Salvador: Sumpul Command Troops Combat Smugglers, Gangs

By Dialogo
September 22, 2015

Along El Salvador’s 375-kilometer land border, more than 1,000 Armed Forces members of the Sumpul Command work day and night to combat the smuggling of drugs, weapons, livestock, stolen vehicles, staple grains, clothes, cigarettes, and liquor.

“This Command’s mission is to protect honest people who import products into this country, many of which are brought in from Honduras, Nicaragua, or Guatemala,” Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés said. “But its mission is also to arrest those criminals who steal what is not theirs and attempt to sell it in El Salvador.”

This means arresting not just the smugglers themselves, but also the numerous accomplices who often work with them in major gangs. Recently, for example, Troops attached to the Sumpul Command struck a blow against th M-18 gang when they arrested Cruz Alberto Rodríguez Machado, also known as “El Travieso,” in the department of Usulután. The 28-year-old, a suspected member of Barrio 18 (M-18) who was wanted for aggravated homicide, allegedly had a Browning BDA 380 pistol, a 38mm-caliber revolver, a weapon loader, and different caliber cartridges in his possession when he was taken into custody on August 20.

That arrest came just five weeks after Sumpul Command Soldiers captured three suspects who, according to the National Civil Police’s (PNC) Explosives and Weapons Division, were attempting to smuggle weapons to an M-18 leader. The Troops arrested two men and a woman who were traveling in a truck from the Honduran border to the Salvadoran city of Santa Rosa de Lima on July 13; during the operation, they found several small suitcases containing 12 RGB-18 and RGB-5 grenades (Soviet model military grade weapons), 25 rounds of 9mm ammunition, military uniforms, and cash.

Law enforcement authorities are investigating where the weapons were stolen from while the detainees remain in pre-trial custody. If convicted, the suspects face between five and seven years in prison for violating the law that regulates weapons, ammunition, explosives, and similar items.

Sumpul Command Soldiers protect honest people

Weapons trafficking may pose an obvious threat to the people of El Salvador, but smugglers can also threaten their economic well-being by transporting other illegal goods into the country.

“These criminals are the ones who bring in counterfeit name brands into our market, and they sell them like they were genuine,” said Private Carlos Alas, a Soldier with the Sumpul Command in the subdivision of Piedras Azules. “This is a crime, and we are here to protect Salvadorans from such people.”

One such band of criminals, a group of alleged clothing smugglers, proved no match for the Sumpul Command's Soldiers on August 6 when they were arrested in the municipality of Candelaria de la Frontera in the department of Santa Ana. During the arrest, Troops seized 246 packages of clothes with counterfeit brand labels valued at $3,000 -- an impressive followup to another bust just two weeks before, when they confiscated 449 items of clothing and 1,710 pieces of jewelry valued at $3,763 and $2,249, respectively.

“We have encountered people who try to bribe us to let them through with merchandise, but many already understand that won’t work,” said First Lieutenant René Benítez, the group’s commanding officer. “We are here to prevent this from continuing to happen, so we will maintain the checkpoints.”

In the municipality of San Lorenzo in Ahuachapán department, 15 service members monitor those checkpoints along a 7-kilometer stretch following the Güeveapa River. One has been established permanently on a wooden suspension bridge in El Portillo, where people and vehicles cross the river.

Such efforts keep the Sumpul Command busy, but their vigilance has paid off: between January 1 and early September, it performed more than 400 vehicle checks, recorded 2,000 foot patrols, and searched 12,000 persons and 3,000 vehicles. Soldiers have seized 50 kilograms of a variety of drugs, 300 firearms linked to gangs, 2,200 packs of cigarettes, 1,500 items of clothing, and 3,500 pounds of staple grains. The previous year, Soldiers seized more than 258.5 hundredweights of stolen coffee; 46,148 packs of cigarettes; 30,989 packages of clothes; and 2,200 firearms of different calibers.

Working with the civilian population

In addition to conducting patrols and seizing contraband, Sumpul Command service members hold meetings with residents in the border towns where smugglers operate to learn first-hand about the civilian population’s needs and how criminal activity impacts their lives. On August 18, Troops met with residents in Rancho Quemado, a subdivision in the department of Morazán, along the border with Honduras.

“We heard concerns from the population that we will elevate to the appropriate authorities regarding surveillance procedures or needs they have that the Sumpul Command can perform,” said Colonel Eduardo Carías, commanding officer of the Fourth Military Detachment in Morazán.

Civilians appreciate the Sumpul Command’s efforts and understand the need for minor inconveniences at vehicle checkpoints where Troops ask for identification documents or receipts for items being transported -- steps that prevent trafficking and theft.

“The service members who monitor the border areas provide security ... so there are no criminals lurking around,” said Luis Orellana, a 65-year-old farmer and resident of Rancho Quemado. “In addition, they ensure that no one is going to steal our products because they always search every vehicle.”

Patrols make crossing the border zone safer for those who transport harvests from Honduran farmers.

“We have property in Honduras and El Salvador, where we grow our crops, so we need to cross the border every day,” said Óscar Alberto Argueta, a 35-year-old farmer and resident of Rancho Quemado. “And every day we bring our harvests across. I hope the Soldiers stay there, monitoring permanently, because they allow us to sell our wares in peace.”