The combined fight partner nations and the United States undertake against narcotrafficking never lets up. The Cooperative Security Location (CSL) Comalapa, in El Salvador, highlights regional efforts to disrupt narcotrafficking groups that travel across Central America from the south to reach the United States.
CSL Comalapa, located on the air base of the same name, operates under the U.S. Navy to support Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South), one of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) three task forces. From El Salvador, the site provides round-the-clock logistics and infrastructure support to U.S. Navy combined interagency counter-drug operations, humanitarian missions, and search-and-rescue operations.
“We represent our [the United States] long-term commitment to the Western Hemisphere and our partner nations. Our mission is to provide operational support to both manned and unmanned aviation units that participate in JIATF South’s detection and monitoring mission,” said U.S. Navy Commander Addison G. Daniel, commander of CSL Comalapa. “Our mission supports SOUTHCOM’s security efforts by disrupting threat networks.”
The site is operational since August 2000, as a result of a security and defense cooperation agreement between the United States and El Salvador. Since then, CSL Comalapa has helped prevent narcotics, worth millions of dollars from reaching its destination. In 2018 alone, CSL seized drugs worth $6 billion.
“We are satisfied with [our handling of] the narcotrafficking issue. SOUTHCOM’s support, and that of its different agencies specialized in countering [narcotrafficking], is important,” said Salvadoran Army Major General Félix Edgardo Núñez Escobar, head of the Armed Forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. “A factor that strengthens our effective efforts against narcotrafficking is the timely information that CSL provides, with aircraft’s continuous monitoring of different suspicious vessels they detect, from their departure in South America to their entry into our national territorial waters. This allows us to have close, effective communication with the [Salvadoran Navy’s] Trident Naval Task Force until we seize the shipment and arrest the criminals.”
CSL Comalapa has strategic value not only for the United States, but also for El Salvador. “CSL Comalapa allows El Salvador to showcase its partnership with the United States and all the countries in the region that narcotrafficking affects,” said U.S. Army Colonel Elliot Harris, senior Defense official at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. “El Salvador has been particularly reliable and good at what they do, to the point where their efforts individually, as part of the collective maritime interdiction team, have fundamentally changed the way narcotraffickers do their trafficking in the Eastern Pacific.”
Counter-drug operations are combined and interagency; they are carried out with the participation of the Salvadoran Armed Force, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, among others.
“CSL Comalapa, JIATF South, and SOUTHCOM play an integral role in the fight against narcotrafficking; it’s truly the best example of interagency efforts,” said Gene Crouch, DEA attaché in El Salvador. “The Salvadoran Navy goes out in support of DEA investigations and the U.S. Embassy efforts. They make the seizures, and CSL is right there along with them to make these seizures happen.”
JIATF South’s Command Center, located at the U.S. Naval Air Station Key West, in Florida, sends the information so that CSL can start interdiction operations. With P-8, P-3C, and C-130 Hercules aircraft, among others, CSL personnel conduct surveillance flights to detect drug cartel vessels and aircraft in transit.
“We provide hours and hours on station [from the zone being monitored] to allow our partner nations to come in and intercept the vessels,” said U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Rodrigo Cunha, a tactics officer with Patrol Squadron 16. “If you don’t have anybody on top seeing what’s going on and providing the imagery to the endgame to support the prosecution, it would be like [the interdiction] didn’t happen.”
According to U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Brandon Adams, assistant officer in charge of Patrol Squadron 16 War Eagles, CSL is JIATF South’s direct resource. “We monitor narcotraffickers and smugglers in transit from inside the region up towards the north. We generally detect vessels such as speedboats and pangas which go pretty fast,” he said.
“Our relationship with El Salvador is very good,” Cmdr. Daniel concluded. “To El Salvador we offer job opportunities and we infuse money back into the local economy, but a number that you can’t necessarily make tangible is the fact that we increase security both here, in El Salvador, and for the region.”