In early May 2018, Naval Task Force Trident of the Salvadoran Naval Force (FNES, in Spanish), identified and intercepted a vessel 290 nautical miles off the coast of Punta Remedios, department of Sonsonate. Aboard, authorities found 33 packages containing 947 kilograms of cocaine worth $25 million. With information from U.S. Coast Guard aircraft, FNES used a maritime patrol and two outboard-powered speedboats to carry out the interdiction operation as part of the cooperation and security agreements between both countries. The information enabled naval authorities to seize the suspicious vessel and drug cargo.
“Participation and cooperation are key to bring operations to a successful conclusion,” FNES Ensign Raúl Edgardo Romero, chief of the Assault Team, told Diálogo. “The combined, joint, and interagency effort, which we have with different U.S. security [agencies] and their Coast Guard, as well as with the Prosecutor’s Office and the Salvadoran Civil Police’s Antinarcotics Division, made this seizure possible.”
During the maritime operation, agents arrested the crew of the outboard-powered fishing vessel, consisting of an Ecuadorean and a Colombian national. “This cargo is Naval Task Force Trident’s largest drug seizure in 2018,” Captain René Francis Merino, chief of FNES’ General Staff, told Diálogo.
The combined and joint effort allowed for the seizure of 1.6 tons of cocaine so far in 2018. From 2016 to 2017, authorities seized nearly 16 tons of cocaine. “We are proud of our record drug seizure in recent years,” Cap. Merino said. “Narcotraffickers no longer use our national waters to transport drugs. We reduced it by 90 percent,” he said.
Eyes wide open
El Salvador is among the Central American countries international drug traffickers use to transport drugs between South America, the United States, and other countries to the north. “Help from the United States has become very important, not only for operations, but also logistics, and the continuous specialized training of our personnel,” Ensign Romero said. “Thanks to the cooperation of U.S. Southern Command [SOUTHCOM], our personnel received better training and conducted significant seizures since 2015,” Cap. Merino added.
According to Ensign Romero, cooperation with the U.S. military enables Salvadoran officers to keep their “eyes wide open” on criminal organizations’ activities when operations come into force. Thanks to SOUTHCOM, Salvadoran officers learn new interdiction techniques and tactics, vessel boarding, and registration audits with strict adherence to human rights, he said.
“Interdiction and arrest operations of people linked to narcotrafficking also improved the capabilities of Task Force Trident’s members,” Ensign Romero said. “U.S. military courses and training comply with the requirements of the Salvadoran naval institution to guarantee success and security of operations.”
Beyond the 200 miles
In 2016, FNES’s efficiency rendered seizures non-existent along the Salvadoran coast. “Drug traffickers decided to go offshore after realizing that navigating in Salvadoran waters was dangerous for them,” Cap. Merino said. “We adapted our Naval [Task] Force Trident to operate beyond the 200 territorial maritime miles.”
Narcotraffickers use different routes to transport drugs. The Galápagos Islands are a strategic point to transit cocaine from Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia to Guatemala or the border between Mexico and Guatemala—and in some cases directly to Mexico.
The work doesn’t end with interdiction at sea. The Prosecutor’s Office must then press charges and attempt to indict the criminals. The Civil Police supports technical aspects and all data processing, while naval personnel attend trials to testify.
“Nearly 99 percent of cases are prosecuted. Without these testimonies, these cases wouldn’t be successful,” Cap. Merino said. “Here, we can see the work of three institutions [FNES, Prosecutor’s Office, and Civil Police] that fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.”