The Salvadoran Air Force (FAS, in Spanish) will ramp up its air contingent as part of the United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA, in French) in Mali. Units will deploy to Timbuktu, where the Salvadoran mission, under the direction of the United Nations (UN), will feature an air assistance unit on the ground and a unit of attack helicopters, as of May 2018.
“The specialized combat helicopter air contingent is critical to the peacekeeping operations carried out in Mali,” Army Major General David Munguía Payés, Salvadoran Minister of Defense, told Diálogo from the Mali encampment. “Our determination to continue to support the establishment of lasting peace and security to benefit the entire population is unwavering,” he added.
The minister took command of deployed elements in Mali on April 11, 2018. Upon arrival, he confirmed that two new units would come to relieve the Torogoz III helicopter air contingent, onsite since 2015. “We reiterate our commitment to contribute to the UN peacekeeping missions,” he said.
Torogoz III, christened in honor of El Salvador's national bird, which represents freedom and family unity, is composed of 90 members, including Special Forces commands, engineers, radio technicians, and military sanitation specialists from the Armed Force of El Salvador (FAES, in Spanish). The contingent works independently under the command of FAS Colonel José León Gómez.
“Extremist groups’ constant attacks caused us to increase our number of operations,” Col. León told Diálogo. “The population feels calmer and such incidents dropped noticeably.”
The Salvadoran pilots deployed with MINUSMA are trained in air personnel transport, convoy escort, air search and surveillance, and search and rescue of injured personnel. Additionally, they can provide civilian protection support, human rights monitoring, humanitarian assistance, and return of persons displaced by conflict.
A female attack pilot
Torogoz III has a distinctive feature. One of its attack pilots is a woman. Captain Sandra Hernández is the only female pilot in the FAS second helicopter air contingent.
Capt. Hernández volunteered for the mission, after undergoing a battery of medical, physical, and psychological tests. She was one of the most outstanding students in the survival training classes the U.S. Army delivered in El Salvador.
FAES opened its doors to women in 2000, allowing for Capt. Hernández to join as a pilot. Since then, more than 1,000 female service members serve in the various military fields.
“I work with professional personnel, who respect and value the work of all, regardless of their gender. They demand the same from me as from men, and don't discriminate against me for being a woman,” Capt. Hernández told Diálogo. “El Salvador went to great lengths to ensure that gender is not a problem for women. Women’s presence in the armed forces produces a high level of acceptance and trust in the [citizens] and I experienced this in my interaction with the population.”
Capt. Hernández is in charge of monitoring Torogoz III aircraft and flight equipment, which must be in optimal conditions for missions. For example when elements conduct air reconnaissance in areas prone to terrorist attacks and escort logistics convoys deployed in cities.
“Our mission is to bring security to the country with our patrols and use our aircraft to deter terrorist groups,” Capt. Hernández said. “We succeeded in greatly reducing the number of attacks. Without a doubt, this brings calm and stability to people, so that they can go to work, take their children to school, and not live holed up in their homes out of fear.”
“We are proud to have her on the team, her unique empathy with the women and children of the area allows us to better interact with families,” Col. León said. “Working with colleagues with different military training, cultures, and languages adds value to the experience the [Salvadoran] contingent will gain from MINUSMA.”
All Salvadoran service members deployed with Torogoz III trained at the FAES Center for Peace Operations. The center was renovated in 2015, thanks to a $1.3 million donation from the Global Peace Operations Fund (GPOI), through U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador.
GPOI, financed by the U.S. government, is designed to improve international capacity to carry out UN Peacekeeping Operations. Its goal is to support partner nations in increasing capacity to gain and maintain peacekeeping competency, increase the number of available service members and police units, and facilitate the preparation, logistics support, and deployment of military units.