Since Army Major General Félix Edgardo Núñez Escobar took over as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Force of El Salvador (FAES, in Spanish) in January 2016, he dedicated himself to fighting narcotrafficking and other illegal activities by land, air, and sea. For him, interagency coordination is key to combat regional threats.
Maj. Gen. Núñez spoke with Diálogo during the 2018 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), which took place May 9th–10th in San Salvador. CENTSEC 2018 facilitated a dialogue between defense and public security leaders regarding threats to Central American stability and the establishment of new regional collaboration mechanisms to take down illegal networks.
Diálogo: What is the significance of El Salvador hosting CENTSEC 2018 for the third time?
Army Major General Félix Edgardo Núñez Escobar, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Force of El Salvador: Hosting CENTSEC 2018 gives us great satisfaction, as well as a sense of responsibility to meet this challenge. In coordination with U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), we took all the steps necessary to get ready for this high level event and prepare ourselves to receive the various officials from ministries of Defense and chiefs of General Staff to discuss common problems related to criminal networks affecting our region.
Diálogo: What interagency work initiatives has FAES adopted to counter transnational criminal organizations?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: Our initiatives go hand-in-hand with the plans laid out by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, specifically, working in conjunction with the National Civil Police. In this respect, we can point to Plan New Dawn (Plan Nuevo Amanecer) linked to the federal government plan, Plan Safe El Salvador (Plan El Salvador Seguro), which unifies strategies to reduce violence and create a safe environment throughout the country. What this means is that our Armed Force endeavors to join the police and other government institutions directly to control unofficial border crossings, reinforce prison security, and safeguard public school perimeters to prevent children from being exposed to criminal activity or recruitment. We also took over security at main bus terminals and maintain permanent deployments in municipalities identified as having the highest rates of crime and violence. We do all this without losing sight of our fundamental constitutional mission: national defense.
Diálogo: The mission of the Anti-Terrorist Special Command (CEAT, in Spanish), an elite FAES group, is to take on gangs and narcotrafficking. CEAT deploys to the country’s most violent municipalities since September 2017 to counter criminal attacks. What are the results of this anti-crime deployment?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: As part of the Special Forces Command, CEAT conducts operations focused on pursuing gang leaders in coordination with specialized police units. To date, these have been very effective. Through their intelligence services, the police provide the location of gang leaders or lieutenants from the 100 most wanted list. Specialized FA-PNC [Armed Force-National Civil Police] units then act quickly and use this information to execute arrest warrants from the Attorney General’s Office. It should be noted that the list never gets shorter. The first 100 from the initial list were captured. However, there will always be a list of the 100 most wanted, since gangs find new leaders to take over for those who were arrested.
Diálogo: Transnational criminal organizations use the Atlantic and Pacific to transport drugs to the United States and other countries. How does El Salvador take part in combined international operations to take down narcotrafficking organizations?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: With respect to narcotrafficking, we feel satisfied with the Navy’s effectiveness. Sea routes are the narcotraffickers’ most commonly used routes over the past 10 years. The support of SOUTHCOM and its various agencies that specialize in countering this threat has been very important. The means, resources, and specialized training they provided our marines allowed us to create the Naval Task Force Trident, an organized, trained force specialized in combating narcotrafficking on the high seas.
Another factor that boosts our effectiveness against narcotrafficking is the provision of timely information from the Anti-Drug Surveillance Center (CMA, in Spanish) the United States set up in our country. Its aircraft provide continuous monitoring of suspicious vessels from the time they set sail from South America to their arrival in our territorial waters. This allows us to maintain close and effective communication with Naval Task Force Trident until drugs are seized and criminals arrested. It’s important to emphasize that Naval Task Force Trident is on active duty around the clock, safeguarding our sovereignty throughout all our maritime territory. SOUTHCOM praised Task Force Trident, considered a model in the region, on many occasions.
Diálogo: You mentioned the success Naval Task Force Trident has had during its interdiction operations. What kind of international cooperation contributed to this progress?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: With regards to cooperation, we are very happy with the help received from SOUTHCOM, the U.S. Military Group, and other agencies related to countering this threat. It’s clear to us that no limits are put on this effort. Naval Task Force Trident is well equipped and well trained. We received the right equipment to be able to work in extreme conditions on the high seas, including such special equipment as night vision goggles, next-generation communication devices on our vessels, and the proper weaponry for use on the high seas. All of this allows Naval Task Force Trident to be highly efficient in its counter narcotrafficking operations.
Diálogo: Joint Group Cuscatlán (GCC, in Spanish) is considered an exclusive counter narcotrafficking group in Central America. What advances did GCC make in the fight against transnational criminal organizations?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: GCC is the earliest precursor in the fight against narcotrafficking and was created prior to Task Force Trident. We realized that we needed to do more interinstitutional or, in U.S. lingo, interagency work to counter threats to our region—and specifically to our own country—stemming from drug trafficking. It was clear that our Armed Force shouldn’t wage this fight alone but with other institutions, thereby making the fight against this scourge more powerful and dynamic. As such, the Attorney General’s Office, the Police, Immigration, the Ministry of Finance, and the Autonomous Executive Port Commission all joined in. We began to work together in 2002, which is when GCC was born. At that time, illicit air traffic posed the greatest threat, and we used our air resources to respond effectively and make seizures. Over time, air traffic intensity dropped, and narcotraffickers began to prefer maritime routes.
GCC received support from SOUTHCOM and a number of other agencies involved in the fight against narcotrafficking. It works closely with the Police Counter Narcotics Division along the coastline on shore and is equipped with Zodiak boats that allow it to patrol up to 5 kilometers off the coast. Its equipment is similar to that of Naval Task Force Trident. GCC has been highly effective and serves as a model for Central America. Its work on land and in coastal waters complements the work of Naval Force Trident, and both seek to counter the activities of transnational criminal networks.
Diálogo: What work does GCC do in conjunction with the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South)?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: The work of GCC and Naval Task Force Trident relies on information JIATF-South provides. JIATF-South provides real-time monitoring and timely follow-up for all types of suspicious vessels and then promptly alerts GCC and/or Trident Force, allowing them to react immediately and effectively. We are partners to agreements that bolster our efforts in the fight against narcotrafficking and have a close relationship with the United States in this area. Among these agreements are measures that allow the Comalapa Surveillance Center to operate, permanent JIATF-South liaison officers to be assigned, and information to be exchanged through various agreed upon regional networks.
Diálogo: Why is it important for the region’s countries to work together to fight transnational criminal organizations?
Maj. Gen. Núñez: We are still just a byway for narcotrafficking, virtually no cocaine is sold in El Salvador. We do everything possible to cooperate with the United States and the regional countries to intercept the drug on the high seas and prevent it from reaching land. International cooperation is a key concept we discussed at CENTSEC 2018. The worst mistake a country or institution can make is to believe that it can solve the problems transnational [criminal] networks pose, such as narcotrafficking, alone. We need to work together, through constant coordination and cooperation. This has proven to be the only way to effectively counter criminal organizations that threaten the region’s peace, development, and prosperity.