SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – The Cuscatlán Joint Group (GCC), an interagency task force, is spearheading the effort to weaken the intricate narco-trafficking networks that use the country as an alternative route for shipping drugs into the United States.
The primary mission of the GCC – made up of the National Civil Police (PNC), the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) and the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) – is to fight the shipment of large quantities of drugs passing through the Central American nation.
The Anti-Drug Monitoring Center (CMA) at the International Airport of El Salvador provides intelligence on the possible trafficking of narcotics into the country. This information is transferred to the Interagency Anti-Narcotics Operations Center (COAI), which plans operations against narco-traffickers that are carried out by the GCC.
Authorities from the PNC, FAES, FGR, the Ministry of Finance, the Department of Immigration and the Interior Ministry’s Autonomous Executive Port Commission (CEPA) form the COAI.
“[Thanks to the GCC], the procedures have been streamlined,” said Artillery Lt. Col. Luis Enrique Viera Santamaría, who represents the FAES within the GCC. “We used to have to wait for personnel from San Salvador to arrive with the equipment to transfer procedural information to other parts of the country. [Everything] is faster now because we have the appropriate technological equipment for the operations.”
The GCC operates out of the Second Air Brigade in Comalapa in the south-central department of La Paz.
Since the formation of the GCC in March 2012, more than 500 kilograms of cocaine and marijuana worth an estimated US$12 million have been confiscated.
On July 18, the GCC received information about the entry of a suspicious van with Costa Rican registration that was traveling from Nicaragua to Belize.
The GCC quickly established a checkpoint – complete with military and police personnel and sniffer dogs – in the municipality of San Martín in the department of San Salvador to inspect the vehicle.
They eventually found 460 kilograms of cocaine worth an estimated worth of US$11.5 million. The driver of the van, Nicaraguan citizen Juan José Matamoros, 36, and Costa Rican José Francisco González, 34, were charged with international narco-trafficking and are awaiting trial.
They are facing prison sentences of up to 15 years, according to Jorge Cortez, the chief prosecutor of the FGR’s Special Drug Trafficking Crimes Unit.
On Aug. 20, residents of the Sihuapilapa village in the municipality of Teotepeque in the department of La Libertad, 52 kilometers southwest of San Salvador, notified the GCC that marijuana crops were hidden in a sorghum plantation, leading to the seizure of 667 marijuana plants.
“We have strong evidence that the mountainous and remote areas of our country are being used to plant marijuana,” said an official of the PNC’s National Anti-Narcotics Division, whose identity was withheld in accordance with security protocols. “There is likely more in the area where this seizure took place.”
These achievements are the result of the international support El Salvador is receiving to fight drugs.
On March 6, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, delivered vehicles, speedboats and technological equipment worth US$455,000 to support the GCC’s work.
“The GCC represents an historic partnership between the U.S. government, the police and the Armed Forces, who are joining forces to combat transnational crime through counter-narcotics operations,” Aponte said at the time.
The U.S. assistance to El Salvador is based on the Letter of Agreement for the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) of January 2009, which facilitates the GCC’s coordination with the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-South), based in Key West in the U.S. state of Florida.
The GCC also has collaborated with Operation Martillo, an effort led by the JIATF-South to neutralize transnational criminal organizations by limiting their ability to use Central America as a transit area, according to Viera Santamaría.
“The operation is an example of working with partners to combat drug trafficking. Through all of its coordinated actions, the group cooperates indirectly with these regional efforts,” he said.
During the past year, Operation Martillo has focused its efforts on the northwestern region of Honduras and northern Guatemala, according to the FAES. It’s believed 80% of the drugs smuggled into the U.S. pass through the northern regions of Honduras and Guatemala, according to FAES.
“As a result of the work carried out by the Monitoring Center, El Salvador has not become a key drug trafficking area,” said Howard Cotto, the executive director of the National Anti-Drug Commission (CNA). “El Salvador isn’t a mandatory stop, but it’s an alternative.”