By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo February 01, 2017
El Salvador has intensified its fight against the country’s criminal organizations, especially gangs. New government regulations and the participation of the Armed Forces are part of the strategies to eliminate the illegal structures of criminal organizations.
Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 are two of the main Salvadoran gangs involved in, among other criminal acts, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping. According to a report from the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador published in April 2016, the violence generated by gangs cost the nation $4 million.
The financial cost and national and regional security concerns caused by gangs worry Colonel Salvador Ernesto Hernández Vega, general Chief of Staff of the Salvadoran Air Force. That is why since assuming office in December 2015, he has supported his country’s Armed Forces role in helping to keep the peace internally and to defend the sovereignty and integrity of domestic airspace. Combating gangs in his country and throughout Central America has become one of his fundamental priorities.
Col. Hernández spoke with Diálogo during the Central American Air Chiefs Conference, held December 12 and 13, 2016 at the Davis-Monthan Air Base in Tucson, Arizona.
Diálogo: What is the importance of El Salvador’s presence at the Central American Air Chiefs Conference?
Colonel Ernesto Hernández Vega: Participation is important to me because one can meet and interact with leaders from the region’s air forces. I think that it’s quite important. If we are seeking integration in the region and collaboration amongst ourselves, then what could be better than meeting each other and being able to exchange ideas and experiences and, why not, needs and problems? All of this enriches the region and gives us tools to be able to interact and face problems or solutions jointly.
Diálogo: What is El Salvador’s goal for its participation in this conference?
Col. Hernández: We want to collaborate to prevent transnational crimes like smuggling and the illicit trafficking of drugs through the Central American region. One of our objectives is this: for them to stop using our maritime, land, or air territory for this type of illicit activity. Likewise, it is a good opportunity for us to exchange ideas, propose solutions, or listen to solutions that could benefit the region and El Salvador itself.
Diálogo: Which are the most important security issues facing El Salvador?
Col. Hernández: Currently, the main issue facing El Salvador is gangs. We have a high daily death rate resulting from this blight, followed by drug trafficking, but I don’t think trafficking affects El Salvador as much as consumption does. Our main problem is gangs, which also affect the country’s economy, stability, and security.
Diálogo: What agreements/collaboration programs does your country have with the United States and other partner nations in the region to face these kinds of issues?
Col. Hernández: Coming here and being able to interact with various participants in the region demonstrates our collaboration with these countries. El Salvador has collaborative programs with Air Forces Southern and U.S. Southern Command. We’ve also had the opportunity to exchange ideas, recommendations, and solutions with the New Hampshire National Guard, which is our partner state [in the State Partnership Program]. Additionally, this meeting involves several members of the System of Cooperation among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA, per its Spanish acronym), which is an excellent program aimed at regional integration, trust-building, cooperation, and finding solutions to regional problems. It is a regional program that is very beneficial and also gives us the opportunity to interact with leaders from the air forces of Central America. In El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, we have the Central American Armed Forces Conference (CFAC, per its Spanish acronym), which is another beneficial tool, another program to face all the current challenges for the regional armed forces and, specifically, the air forces.
As countries from the Central American region, I think that, like many other air forces, we have many weaknesses, such as the scarcity of resources, and I am convinced that we can only face and create solutions to these regional problems by integrating as a region.
Diálogo: In terms of SICOFAA, as a member country, what do you think is the importance of this type of integrated cooperation system?
Col. Hernández: SICOFAA is quite important because it allows the air forces to know each other better, to have more trust and greater cooperation among air forces. SICOFAA facilitates cooperation, consulting, and the resolution of problems through the kinds of close relationships that we have forged as members.
Diálogo: As head of the Salvadoran Air Force, what is your biggest challenge?
Col. Hernández: Our fundamental challenge, just like any other air force in the region or the world, is resources. Maintaining and developing an air force anywhere, regardless of what air assets you have, is expensive. So one of the challenges is maintaining an air force that is versatile, competent, useful to the region, and also has personnel that is suitable and appropriately trained to face the challenges that every air force has.
Diálogo: Colonel Hernández, would you like to add anything else for readers in the region?
Col. Hernández: First, I would like to thank Air Forces Southern for this invitation, and, second, I would like to invite all the air force members who attended [the Central American Air Chiefs Conference] to join forces with each other because integration is the only tool that will give us answers to the needs and issues we have as the Central American region.