Los Artefactos Explosivos Improvisados
Improvised Explosive Devices in El Salvador
Very little has been written about the role of Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) in El Salvador during that country’s thirteen-year civil war (1980–1993). In the decade following the Vietnam War, American military intervention to prevent the spread of Communism was looked upon with disfavor, even after the Sandanistas overthrew the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in 1979. American casualties had increased dramatically during the Nixon era of “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam, and in 1973, the U.S. Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to limit the president’s authority to commit American military forces in “undeclared” wars. During the Carter administration (1977–1981), the U.S. Army leadership hunkered down and waited for better times, and counterinsurgency was regarded with disdain. These were difficult times for the executors of U.S. military assistance in Latin America: the Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations elements conducting training missions, and the Operational Planning and Assistance Training Teams (OPATT) officers and noncommissioned officers assigned to El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) brigades as trainers.
Employing unconventional warfare tactics to counter insurgents fighting a guerrilla war is now an integral part of America’s Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), whether used in an urban or field environment, are standard guerrilla weapons. The majority of our combat losses in Iraq and Afghanistan are attributed to IEDs, and the same was true for the ESAF during its long war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement (FMLN) and the Ejército Nacional de Colombia (ENA). Though most of the IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan employ conventional military munitions, the purpose of this article is to remind ARSOF elements committed overseas today that simple field-expedient IEDs made from fertilizer chemicals, rebar rods, scrap metal, and rocks—homemade “first-generation munitions”—being employed by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) cannot be discounted. As more conventional weapons and munitions caches are discovered and destroyed, the potential threat of encountering primitive IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq will grow. Thus, a review of ARSOF experiences in El Salvador and similarities in Colombia is most appropriate.
The consistent commitment of 7th Special Forces Group mobile training teams to train El Salvadoran armed forces increased momentum in 1982. By then, the Salvadoran military had been fighting the FMLN for several years; however, levels of financial and material support provided to the FMLN by Cuba and Nicaragua during the Cold War were minimal compared to those being made available to insurgencies by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups today. Thus, the majority of IEDs—artefactos explosivos improvisados—employed by the FMLN against the ESAF elements in the war were very primitive compared to those encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq today, but similar to those in Colombia. Only the term “field-expedient explosives” and effective lethality connect them.
This article discusses the three most common IEDs encountered in El Paraiso and Chalatenango [Military Department 1 (DM-1, Departemiento Militar Uno)] in 1988–1989, when fighting was heaviest in El Salvador. El Paraiso and Chalatenango were the largest cities in the FMLN-dominated north. FMLN control of those two cities would split the country in half.2 El Paraiso was overrun by the insurgents in December 1983 and 31 March 1987, when Special Forces SSG Gregory A. Fronius was killed. Both times the Salvadoran military recaptured the city after fierce fighting. El Paraiso was subjected to two more major FMLN attacks in March and September 1988, and again in September and November 1989, during the last countrywide FMLN offensive. This was the “hot spot” during the Salvadoran war.
2 Major General James W. Parker, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 26 April 2005, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
Field-expedient explosives and weapons—bloques (TNT blocks), torpedos bangalores (bangalore torpedoes), rampas (catapults), and a homemade 12.7mm rifle cañon (canon)—were used during the attacks on El Paraiso. The first two were commonly employed by the FMLN throughout the war, while the rampas appeared in 1989. The 12.7mm rifle cañon, though it might have been tested, was not fired during the 13 September 1988 attack on the 4th Brigade cuartel in El Paraiso. It was not for lack of ammunition. Bloques had been used during the numerous assaults and were left as booby-traps in ESAF fighting positions and on the .50 cal M-2 machinegun on Loma Alfa (Hilltop Alpha) when the FMLN withdrew scattering propaganda leaflets.
Bloques were simply constructed by wrapping several blocks of TNT or plastic explosive together with electrical tape or heavy rubber bands and using plastic bags to make them “water resistant”—a critical factor in daily tropical rains that also collected moisture leading to misfires. Wells were dug in the one end to accommodate detonators or fuse igniters. Detonators and fuse igniters were either taped in place or paraffin was used to secure them.3 Self-taught ESAF “bomb disposal” personnel called explosivistas would collect the abandoned bloques after the attacks to defuse and disarm them. Destruction of these bomblets was usually accomplished by the SF sergeants serving as OPATT NCOs in the ESAF brigades. They understood the danger.4
3 Fuerza Armada de El Salvador, Policia Nacional, Departamento de Investigacion Policial. Foleto Ilustrado con Esquemas de los Artefactos Explosivos Improvisados por Terroristas que Operan en el Pais. (San Salvador: 1986): 70.
4 Command Sergeant Major (Retired) Henry Ramírez, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 16 May 2005, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office classified files, Fort Bragg, NC; three ESAF intelligence agents died tragically in their room after one soldier, after inspecting a bloque, casually tossed it onto a pile of them; Lieutenant Colonel Byron T. Castleman, XVIII Airborne Corps G-2, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 13 September 2005, Fort Bragg, NC, tape recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
After the 13 September 1988 attack on the 4th Brigade cuartel in El Paraiso, the “inside perimeter was littered with unexploded ordnance from the destroyed ammunition supply points and bloques,” according to the U.S. Military Group (MILGP) El Salvador Flight Detachment UH-1H Huey pilots sent to evacuate the OPATT personnel.5 Bloques con ventosas de hule (bloques with rubber suction cups) were also used to destroy ESAF aircraft at Illopango Airport.6 Thus, the FMLN used bloques as large hand grenades and as satchel charges.
5 Captain Timothy J. Looby, “Narrative of actions taken by US personnel during the FMLN assault on the 4th Brigade headquarters, El Paraiso, El Salvador, 13 September 1988,” 6 October 1997. Actually, “over a hundred unexploded bloques inside the compound after the attack” and five of none ammunition bunkers were destroyed. Major James W. Parker, 4th Brigade OPATT, After Action Report: Attack on the 4th Brigade Cuartel, El Paraiso, El Salvador, 15 September 1988.
6 Foleto Ilustrado, 20.
Cutting paths through outer defense measures—razor, concertina, and barbed wire emplacements, and improvised minefields—that conventional American military units cleared with bangalore torpedoes led to further improvisation by the guerrillas. The FMLN created its own version of the bangalore torpedo, logically called the torpedo bangalore improvisado, with bamboo and plastic PVC pipe. The head of the explosive contained from four to six 8-inch-long machined steel rods, which were propelled horizontally by a bundle of cloth-wrapped dynamite sticks to clear ground obstacles. The tail section of the bangalore contained the detonator, normally a nonelectric detonator with time cord, held fast by hardened mud. The FMLN emplaced these bangalores at the base of walls (barracks, guard posts, and ammunition bunkers) to topple them or to blast entryways for assaulters, to clear paths through barbed wire obstacles, and to create safe lanes through minefields.7
7 Foleto Ilustrado, 70B; Parker interview.