El Salvador Deals Blow to Narcotrafficking with Help of JIATF South

The Salvadoran Naval Force seized 4.4 tons of cocaine in the Pacific between September and October 2018.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 6 November 2018

Transnational Threats

The Salvadoran Naval Task Force Trident seized 4.4 tons of cocaine in its territorial waters with the help of U.S. Southern Command, between September and October 2018. (Photo: Salvadoran Naval Force)

Naval Task Force Trident (FTNT, in Spanish) of the Salvadoran Naval Force (FNES, in Spanish) dismantled international drug rings, with the help of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South). FTNT detected and intercepted two semi-submersibles and two outboard motor speedboats between September and October 2018. The vessels, headed to the United States, transported more than 4,400 kilograms of cocaine in Salvadoran territorial waters.

“Operations like these are decisive blows against international narcotrafficking,” FNES Lieutenant Commander Francisco Mejía, coordinator of FTNT’s Maritime Interdiction Operations, told Diálogo. “The success is due to the Armed Forces’ Joint Command and FNES’ General Staff, which allow us to conduct these sorts of operations, in addition to the trust and support we get from the U.S. government through the different organizations that help us with information, equipment, and training.”

El Salvador remains a transit country to smuggle drugs from South America to North America and Europe. According to the 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of State, FNES increased maritime interdiction operations and information exchanges with partner nations to push most maritime traffic more than 200 miles off the Salvadoran coast in 2017.  

Tough blows

With the support of the United States, FNES monitors the coast to detect illegal vessels heading north. On October 3, 2018, FTNT carried out one of its latest drug seizures and intercepted a semi-submersible 450 nautical miles off the coast of Acajutla in Sonsonate department. The vessel had 1,998 kg of cocaine valued at $50 million aboard.

“The almost 2-ton seizure is the largest in recent years, and it represents a tough blow to narcotrafficking organizations,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía said. “The Naval Force also arrested three Colombian nationals who made up the crew.”

“So far, we detected and captured three semi-submersibles, which allows us to have a better idea of the Naval Force’s capabilities at the moment,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía said. “A semi-submersible is no longer a problem for us, of course with the United States as our strategic partner through SOUTHCOM’s JIATF South, which lends us their platforms.”

Elite troops of Naval Task Force Trident wipe out narcotrafficking through different maritime operations in Salvadoran territorial waters. (Photo: Salvadoran Naval Force

On September 26th, FNES detected an unmanned speedboat with 552 kg of cocaine in Las Hojas Beach, La Paz department. Naval elite units also intercepted a two-outboard motor speedboat with 1,302 kg of cocaine in 44 packages near Acajutla port on the same day, capturing four crew members—three Colombians and one Ecuadorean.

On September 14th, a total of 15 Salvadoran naval units, two air platforms (one each from JIATF South and FNES), and Salvadoran elite personnel detected and intercepted another semi-submersible 88 nautical miles south of Acajutla, carrying 575 kg of cocaine and three Colombian crew members. Criminals designed and built the low-profile vessel to carry drugs at high speeds without being detected.

“The low-profile vessel didn’t have a chance to escape. The strategic partnership [with the United States] was a key factor,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía said. “The operation lasted more than 72 hours.”  

Naval training and challenges

FTNT members carry out different training, practices, procedures, and techniques individually and collectively, in complex scenarios with SOUTHCOM to strengthen knowledge and skills through maritime exercises. “Training and capacity-building with SOUTHCOM are part of our success,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía said.

“One of the biggest challenges in these interventions is time spent on the scene, when we seek a possible target at sea, where weather conditions might be adverse,” Ensign Elías Serrano, FTNT air platform operator, told Diálogo. “Being part of the operations means a great deal of responsibility; we need to make sound decisions, be the best leaders possible, and prepare for the worst-case scenarios that might arise at sea,” added FNES Ensign Francisco Molina, an officer deployed with FTNT.

“[We operate] non-stop ahead of the slightest piece of information. FNES is in the Salvadoran sea, in a strategic position to respond and protect the health of our people,” Lt. Cmdr. Mejía concluded. “If criminal organizations change, the military forces will change as well. We envision our strategy, and based on that [we plan] with the international strategic partners we count on in this fight.”

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