“When we were ambushed, my reaction was to protect them,” said Salvadoran Army Master Sergeant Fredy Adolfo Castro Urbina, member of the Special Counter-terrorism Command (CEAT, in Spanish), a unit of the Salvadoran Armed Force’s (FAES, in Spanish) Special Forces Command (CFE, in Spanish). “I got them out of the truck, pushed them into a ditch, and drove a vehicle across to protect them from bullets.” Iraqi insurgents were attacking them.
Master Sgt. Castro shared with Diálogo his experience as part of a contingent of 360 service members of FAES’s Cuscatlán Battalion, which took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011.) On March 5, 2004, he led a three-vehicle convoy transporting members of the Multi-national Force – Iraq that came under attack. For his heroic deed, Master Sgt. Castro and five of his soldiers were awarded the U.S. Bronze Star Medal on November 12, 2004. The decoration is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces for heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Nowadays, Master Sgt. Castro is a CEAT instructor who teaches the new generations of soldiers about the courage, discipline, and responsibility that come with belonging to special forces. CEAT is one of three special forces units of FAES’s CFE.
“We are FAES’s strategic reserve, and our goal is to meet national defense objectives,” said Salvadoran Army Colonel Jorge Miranda Martínez, commander of CFE. “We must be ready to deploy at any time, under any conditions, and with maximum operating capacity.”
CFE launched as a command in 1992, bringing together the already existing elite units: CEAT, the Parachute Battalion, and the Special Operations Group (GOE, in Spanish). Although the defense of national sovereignty is CFE’s main priority, its members also conduct operations to support public security, works to benefit the public, humanitarian assistance aid in case of natural disasters, and peacekeeping missions. CFE works jointly with the rest of the military, and conducts interagency operations with the National Civil Police and other government agencies.
CFE members carry out a regular training program of 24 weeks. Upon completion, they can choose one of 10 specialties, such as combat parachute, free fall, assault teams, and snipers, among others.
CEAT was established in 1985 to carry out counterterrorism tasks, hostage rescue, and dignitary protection. “We have highly qualified personnel to fulfill different missions, especially with our hostage rescue capabilities, or in case of a terrorist attack,” said Salvadoran Army Lieutenant Colonel José Carlos Estrada Villafuerte, commander of CEAT.
According to the officer, the training, discipline, and spirit of camaraderie and partnership, added to the command’s experiences in El Salvador and Iraq, are a fundamental part of the unit’s prestige. “The U.S. Army Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) joins our training and helps us with logistics and know-how. We conduct combined training,” he added.
ODA is the Green Berets’ primary combat force. It leverages its expertise and experience to train with partner nations and improve force interoperability.
The Parachute Battalion was inaugurated in 1963, with three maneuver squadrons, a combat support squadron, and a command squadron. The unit specializes in combat parachute, rigging, and precision free fall.
“We conduct airborne and air mobile operations at the orders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” said Salvadoran Army Lieutenant Colonel Óscar René Velásquez, commander of the Parachute Battalion. “We are a strategic unit, and we can fulfill infantry battalion missions.”
With a 55-year history, the battalion is recognized for its integrated work among CFE elite units, humanitarian operations, and mission in Iraq. “We joined to work together as a team, as a command,” Lt. Col. Velásquez said. “Our personnel are highly qualified. Often times, they must work on the field on their own and know the rules of whatever they face.”
Special Operations Group
GOE was created in 1983 and is recognized for its Hacha and PRAL (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, in Spanish) commands, both specialized in specific special operations. GOE also has combat swimmers and divers.
The Hacha command prepares soldiers to carry out ambushes, swift attacks, interdiction and sniper operations, and night vision training. The PRAL command bases its training on underwater, land, and air missions.
“We carry out direct action operations, interdictions, support missions for other units such as training, ambush missions, and swift attacks,” said Salvadoran Army Major Hugo Alexander Campos Bonilla, GOE commander. “These commands are important for their training and equipment. They can make an incursion in the enemy’s rearguard,” Maj. Campos said.
“Our own training is very important, as well as what ODA offers, as it helps us improve our courses and interact with the doctrine,” Maj. Campos said. “It serves to help and support us; we get new equipment, techniques, and training exercises, all of which we include in our plans to make our preparation more professional,” he added.
Contribution to peace
FAES’s experience in Iraq defined its history, while also reinforcing ties of cooperation with the United States. The country is one of four in Central America and 12 worldwide that sent troops to the U.S.-led international coalition to fight the insurgency and terrorism that afflicted the Middle Eastern country.
Alongside Spanish and Polish soldiers, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador made up the Plus Ultra Brigade of the Multinational Division Center-South, one of four operational divisions of the multinational peacekeeping force deployed to Iraq. Out of 2,500 service members in the division, 360 belonged to the El Salvador’s Cuscatlán Battalion.
With a wide range of operations, from the mission in Iraq to supporting the fight against gangs and narcotrafficking, GOE, the Parachute Battalion, and CEAT show their versatility, effectiveness, and high capacity to conduct combat missions involving direct and indirect action. For its members, the mission in Iraq left an unprecedented legacy.
“Our personnel were able to train in real combat situations. We felt the heat of bullets and combat, as we contributed to the reconstruction of Iraq,” Col. Miranda said. “It helped us position ourselves and be recognized not only in Latin America, but also in the world, as a very professional army that contributes to strengthening democracies in other countries.”