Trident Force, El Salvador’s Beacon in the Pacific
By Lorena Baires/Diálogo February 01, 2017The Marines of Task Force Trident, an elite group of the Salvadoran Navy (FNES, per its Spanish acronym) stealthily navigate Pacific Ocean waters. The group is dedicated to dismantling drug trafficking structures that smuggle narcotics into the United States. These criminals are reinventing their drug-mobilization strategies, a challenge that Trident has handled thanks to the constant training it receives, its efficiency in coordinating with other elite naval groups in the region, and international support. For Captain René Merino, FNES chief of General Staff, the effectiveness of the “tridents” forces drug traffickers to find alternatives to achieve their goals. “Before, they would use large vessels to move large quantities of drugs. Now they use several small vessels and distribute the drugs among them. Our goal is to pursue all these vessels at the same time, to use more resources in a more efficient manner. This requires high concentration,” Capt. Merino said. Pacific routes have multiplied. Before Trident came into existence, FNES would identify routes that were very close to the coast. With the emergence of this elite corps in 2014, drug traffickers began to travel more towards the south. Using different specialized protective and attack equipment, Trident now pursues them at distances of over 250 nautical miles from the coast. “At one time, (drug traffickers) used the maritime border between El Salvador and Guatemala as a delivery and resupply point. But ever since we dismantled a small-scale fishing operation that served as a support network in the area, they have migrated to the maritime border between Guatemala and Mexico,” Capt. Merino said. The task force’s effectiveness has been evident since its creation. In 2014, they seized 922 kilos of cocaine, which at that point was the largest drug seizure made by a naval unit in El Salvador. One year later, they seized 2,851 kilos of drugs, three times the previous figure. In 2016, they seized 7,465 kilos of cocaine, an outstanding feat for an elite force with limited resources successfully confronting the challenges presented by the sea and drug traffickers. International cooperation The growing efficiency of Task Force Trident is to a large extent due to the constant training it receives from U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), and from the regional coordination of international agencies that support Central America in the fight against drug trafficking. “The tridents are our first line of defense and the tip of our sword when it comes to threats from organized crime and drug trafficking. They do a very big job so that people can be free,” said Captain Exón Ascencio, commander of La Unión Naval Base, headquarters of FNES. Task Force Trident is part of the Cuscatlán Joint Group (GCC, per its Spanish acronym), an interagency task force charged with combating the movement of large drug shipments and coordinating efforts to slow the passage of drug traffickers through Salvadoran territory. The United States supports FNES thanks to the letter of agreement signed in January 2009 on the Central American Regional Security Initiative, in which a coordination and communication channel was established between GCC and Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S), located in Key West, Florida. “Our special force continues to increase its capacities thanks to shared knowledge. Stopping drugs from getting to black markets is the greatest success of their interdictions, as well as protecting our territory from this type of organized crime,” Capt. Ascencio added. GCC is part of Operation Martillo (Hammer), a JIATF-S effort to neutralize transnational criminal organizations and counteract their capacity to use Central America as a transit zone. New challenges Past achievement will not outshine future work, even as drug traffickers continue reinventing themselves in order to evade the authorities, who are also fighting to prevent money from these organized crime organizations reaching the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Capt. Merino added that with these efforts “we are making sure that the gangs do not grow to the point where they become ‘narco-gangs.’ We are fighting so that drug trafficking stops being an additional source of funding for this type of crime.” Another entity that acknowledges the work of this team is the Specialized Counter-narcotics Trafficking Unit of the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office (FGR, per its Spanish acronym), the civilian arm of Salvadoran criminal investigation. For Cecilia Rivera, chief of FGR, the elite troops “protect our people and the region, at the same time allowing us to capture and investigate those who are responsible for moving drugs through our territory. Stopping these networks is valuable work.” In accordance with El Salvador’s Penal Code, drug trafficking carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. FNES plans to add more specialized training for Trident’s 75 members in the next few months, and it hopes to have the continuous support and unconditional cooperation of partner nations to stop those who dare cross the Pacific with drug shipments, and to continue being an efficient aquatic force protecting the Salvadoran coastline.