Maritime Interdiction, the First Line of Defense against Drug Trafficking
By Lorena Baires/Diálogo July 10, 2017Gray clouds shroud the sky as evening falls over the Pacific Ocean. Two attack patrol boats glide smoothly along the horizon. They belong to the Navy Task Force Trident (FTNT, per its Spanish acronym), an elite group of the Salvadoran Navy (FNES, per its Spanish acronym). On board, teams of military interceptors are keeping their eye on the surroundings. Suddenly, an alarm is heard. A boat with three outboard motors is traversing the peaceful seascape at high speed, and water splashes four large black packages at its stern. Its movement is raising suspicion. FNES First Lieutenant Alejandro Posada, a member of the FTNT Maritime Interdiction Operations group, has command of one of the patrol boats. He orders his team into position while observing the radar. Seconds later, he accelerates the engines and changes course to reach the suspicious vessel, escorted by a second patrol boat. As they attempt to flee, the boats throw their packages into the sea, and the escort patrol boat intercepts them. A few minutes later, First Lt. Posada reaches them. Two sharp turns around the boat are sufficient to immobilize the small vessel. Once detained, and their packages recovered, the boatmen claim the packages contain the product of their work - fish. But FNES Lieutenant Miguel Flores, the FTNT commander, can be heard clearly on the radio: “Confirmed, packages are suspicious, may contain illicit substances, it is not fish.” This was how a maritime interdiction exercise concluded on June 17th along the coast of the Salvadoran region of Sonsonate. These types of operations are a daily occurrence for the FTNT interceptors. High-level training The high-profile operations team blocks the passage of drug-trafficking structures attempting to move drugs north. The specialists are deployed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, along the 321 kilometers comprising the Salvadoran coastline. That is, from the Paz River at the border of Guatemala to the Gulf of Fonseca, which is shared with Honduras and Nicaragua. They are always on alert and strategically positioned. Their specialized tactical level is developed with the support of the U.S. Armed Forces, who have been training them since 2015 and sharing their knowledge about board and search, room clearing on large vessels, search-and- seizure procedures for illicit substances, and fast-roping for insertions from helicopters, capturing individuals, rescuing victims or amphibious reconnaissance, among other things. The training has come from specialized groups like the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command (NAVSOC), Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, and special operations forces units such as Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen or the U.S. Navy Sea, Air and Land Teams, all sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). “Our teams have a work cycle of three months of training and three months of operations at sea. When they come back from training, they have to pass on their newly acquired knowledge to the remaining members, in such a way that they are learning and practicing all the time,” Lt. Flores explained. The interceptors work with real-time information from the Combat Information Center (CIC), a specialized office that manages and organizes the operations. Thanks to the January 2009 Letter of Understanding of the Central American Regional Security Initiative, alerts also come from Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF South), located in Key West, Florida. “Since our units are always in position when the CIC sends us a location where we need to go, it is a question of minutes for us to arrive there. The level of risk and cooperation by the suspects determines the level of force we need to use,” First Lt. Posada added. All the knowledge acquired and developed at sea is shared with the naval forces of Guatemala and Nicaragua, which share a maritime border with El Salvador. “Thanks to the support of SOUTHCOM, we have also had cargo-recovery exercises with Guatemala. For example, a C47 airplane launches a logistical supply package into the sea, and we carry out the rest of the rescue operation,” First Lt. Posada said. Key to success “We are making efforts to be a blue-water naval force; we are not in port but out at sea. Our strategic positions, the training we have received, and the current leadership of our force allows us to attain a high level of success in the naval operations we conduct,” Lieutenant Commander Francisco Mejía Martínez, an FTNT Maritime Interdiction Operations collaborator, proudly details. Day and night, the interceptor units navigate within the 200 nautical miles of Salvadoran territorial waters. This approach to maneuvers, plus the quality of information coming from CIC, allows them to exceed their own expectations. So far in 2017, they have seized 2,522 kilograms of cocaine, while in 2016, that number was 8,708 kilograms. “The threats are changing little by little. That's why we have to maintain a high focus on training. Always in an ideal position at sea to continue the mission of protecting the security of the 200 miles of Salvadoran territorial sea,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía concluded.