By Julio A. Montes
In mid-2003, the Honduran government dispatched the Xatruch Expeditionary Battalion to Iraq with assignment to the Plus-Ultra Spanish Brigade; returning in mid-2004. This was the third time that Honduran troops deployed operationally outside their national borders. The first time took place in the Dominican Republic in 1965, nominally responding to Brazilian Command and OAS. Then, in the 1990s, it dispatched a contingent to Haiti as part of an American Task Force. The deployment of Honduran soldiers to fight side by side with US forces in Iraq – although short lived – and Honduras’ incorporation to the Free Trade Agreement in 2005, provides an opportunity to look into the little known elite forces of that nation today.
Here and Now
The elite 15th Infantry Anti-Subversive Battalion (BIAS), whose motto is Here and Now, proudly carries the Xatruch denomination. The name renders honors to General Florencio Xtruch, who in 1856 led the Honduran Army against William Walker. (The name actually appears spelled as Xtruch in history text, and later appears as Xatruch.) The Honduran troops arrived in Nicaragua under the command of the brothers lorencio and Pedro Xatruch. An interestingf act is that the locals called them “xatruches”, which would evolve into “catruches”, and finally in “catrachos”, a proud nickname that still applies to all Hondurans. General Florencio Xatruch died on September 15, 1893.
The United States and the Honduran government established the Centro Regional de Entrenamiento Militar (CREM.) on June 20, 1983, under Government Agreement No. 0919. The CREM would be located at Silín, Trujillo, Colón province, and would be used to train 6,676 Salvadorian soldiers and 4,176 Hondurans as well as 54 Costa Ricans in two years. The presence of Salvadorian combat troops in Honduras, however, would be a painful reminder of the 1969 Salvadorian invasion, so the CREM closed its doors on July 1, 1985,passing the installations under the control of the newly raised 15th BIAS.
Today, the 15th BIAS has been relocated to Río Claro, Trujillo, and responds under the command of the 115th Infantry Brigade from Juticalpa, Olancho. The 15th has been trained in COIN (COunter INsurgency) operations, tracking, detection, isolation, and neutralization of the enemy. The battalion – or what is left of it – trains in jungle, mountain, and riverine warfare, and it deploys one company in deep reconnaissance, and one or two COIN companies.
The Comando de Operaciones Especiales (COES) was established on April 15, 2004, absorbing the tasks and responsibilities previously entrusted to the Tactical Special Operations Center (Centro de Operaciones Tácticas Especiales – COTE). The Honduran Ministry of Defense, along with the Military Press Office and the Air Force (FAH) has been helpful in the collection of information. The Army Public Relations Office, on the other hand, has been reluctant to allow my many requests to visit naval bases and installations in the south. This might be due to the constant tension with Nicaragua and El Salvador, and my Salvadorian background probably does not help. Nevertheless, it is possible to put together the historical puzzle with information from diverse sources.
We start with the review of 2nd Infantry Battalion established on January 2, 1962 as a regular unit and starting in 1964 the US Green Berets would provide assistance in training and equipping its 2nd Company. As a result, the unit was re-designated Agrupamiento Táctico Especial (ATE), and it would be used as elite light infantry. The first designated Special Operations unit would be formed within the Air Force (FAH) in 1967, consisting of a Para-rescue Platoon. The need for special response units was painfully demonstrated when the Salvadorian Army invaded in July 1969, and the national defenses collapsed. Only a desperate defense with troops and reserves armed with obsolete equipment such as Mausers, MP-28 submachine guns and even small caliber hunting rifles, and intervention by the OAS, managed to stop the invaders.
After the war, the Army renovated its equipment receiving quantities of FNFAL rifles, supplemented later with M14 models. The 2nd Company/ATE had been designated as the fist airborne outfit of the Army absorbing in the process the Para-rescue Platoon as the Special Squadron. In 1974, the complete 2nd Battalion “Black Panthers” is designated as an airborne outfit, and adds the “(Parachute)” adjective to its name. By 1976, Tamara Barracks housed the Tactical Special Group (ATE), comprising the 2nd Black Panthers Battalion, and the Parachute School and the recently established 1st Special Forces Company, comprising the Special Squadron and the Urban Operations Squadron. The Escuadrón de Operaciones Urbanas was divided into an Assault Group, Intelligence Support Group, and Internal Security Group. The Army had also established the Special Jungle and Night Operations Troops Course (Tropa Especializada en Selva y Operaciones Nocturnas – TESÓN), with the first classes being taught by US Green Berets, Israelis and Argentineans. Several junior leaders were dispatched to attend the US Ranger, Lancero and Kaibil Courses to form upon return the core of the trainers, and to tailor the course to national needs. Furthermore, US advisers trained the 300th Intelligence Battalion while Argentineans trained the 316th Intelligence Battalion, which later gained a notoriously brutal reputation. Neither unit actually reached battalion strength.
By 1980, the 1st Special Forces Company had expanded with the addition of an Airmobile Squadron and the Support and Services Squadron. All four squadrons had reached full-complement, transforming the unit in the 1st Special Forces – Airborne Battalion. Then, on July 1, 1982, the Urban Operations Squadron and the Airmobile Unit reached operational independence after being retrained by Israeli commandos, and with both of them the Army established the Special Forces Commandos. Since the Teson Course was the basis for all those involved with the Commandos, all the spec-ops outfits were colloquially called Tesones, but no such operational unit actually existed. From the Special Forces Commando, the Army formed the 2nd Special Forces – Airborne Battalion in 1987 in Dursuna, and is immediately dispatched to El Cajón. All these outfits are later complemented with the 1st Territorial Battalion from Lepaterique, trained by US Special Forces in COIN tactics. In 1983, the 1st Special Forces Battalion is dispatched to Nueva Palestina, Froylan Turcios region, to hunt a guerrilla column of the PRTC (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores de Centro América), which they do with extreme prejudice. In those days, the Army established the Centro de Operaciones Tácticas Especiales (COTE) to coordinate the operations of the 1st and 2nd Spec-Ops Airborne Battalions, the 1st Territorial Battalion, and the Special Tactical Group, with the 2nd Black Panthers Infantry Battalion (Airborne).
The FUSEP/Public Force – meaning National Police—established the Comando y Batallón de Reacción Antiterrorista (COBRA), which divided its forces in an intervention squadron and an anti-riot battalion. The first one was tasked with hostage rescue, and high-risk warrant tasks; the COBRA was limited to operations in urban centers, and those operators observed in Tegucigalpa had been completely equipped with M4 carbines. The police inherited the FN-FAL as the M16 became widely distributed with Army units. The military used Galils, Uzis, and MP5s, along with MAG-58 and M60 machine guns, M203 grenade launchers, IMI Commando mortars, and M72-LAW and Carl Gustav AT weapons.
The Hondurans had to deal with insurgent groups such as the mentioned PRTC, the Frente Lorenzo Zelaya de Liberación Nacional (FLZLN), Frente Cinchonero de Liberación Nacional (FCLN), and the Frente Morazanista de Liberación Nacional (MLN), all supported by the Sandinista Regimen in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas also supported the FMLN in El Salvador. Honduras in turn supported and assisted the contra-revolutionary (contras).
Much of the support to the insurgency in El Salvador came through the Fonseca Gulf, and as a consequence, the Amapala Naval Base, at Tiger Island, became a hub of military activity. The US SEALs are known to have operated from this base, and they in turn trained the Honduran Escuadrón de Buzos Tácticos (EBT). Similarly, the SEALs trained the Escuadrón de Lanchas Riverinas (ELR) “Pirañas”, a naval infantry unit specialized in riverine and coastal warfare and often referred to as the Piranha Battalion. Its task was to provide for base security and operations of 10 Boston Whalers of 23ft, and 12 PBR Lantana of 37ft.
The end of the Sandinista regimen in Nicaragua had a direct and immediate impact in the Honduran Armed Forces. The government implemented a drastic and immediate reduction of forces, disbanding the 1st Territorial Battalion, and the 2nd Spec-Ops Airborne Battalion. When the Special Forces Command (COES) took over in July 2004, it inherited the 1st Spec-Ops Battalion and the 2nd Infantry Battalion (Parachute). For operational tasks, the COES receives support from the Central Command and it is not a coincidence that the unit insignia is a replica of the Central Command patch; only with the COES name under. More specifically, support comes from the 1st Infantry and 1st Artillery battalions, and the 1st Armored Cavalry Squadron (CVR-T). Antiterrorist operations are coordinated with the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales (GOES) from the National Police, and trained by Spanish advisers.
The Navy has also been forced to reorganize its line units, and since 2001 counts with the 1st Naval Infantry Battalion from La Ceiba, comprising the Compañía “A” de Infantería de Marina, and the Unidad de Reconocimiento Anfibio – which absorbed the EBT – plus the Compañía de Servicios Especiales. The Lantana boats have now been retired from service, but there are several Boston Whalers and 15 PBRs donated by Taiwan still in operations.
In turn, the Guardia de Honor Presidencial is tasked with the security of VIPs and government officials. With that in mind in May 2006, the 1st Spec-Ops Battalion started a VIP Protection course, denominated PRODIG, for Curso de Protección de Dignatarios. The first class, No. 01-006, was attended by 48 guards and 5 special forces operatives. The COES is also involved in the training of the new Fuerza de Acción Rápida to be deployed by all Central American countries in support of NAFTA, and a training center has been established for that purpose at La Venta, Morazán. The training is intense, and it is reported that the course lasts 9 months, during which time 25,000 9mm bullets are expended, plus 50,000 in caliber 5.56mm and 2,000 12-gauge.
The high risk and most difficult tasks are the dominion of the Honduran Special Forces, which they perform with great skill, sacrifice and ability.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N11 (August 2007)|