The small Central American nation of El Salvador has been playing an increasingly active role in United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. From the UN mission in Haiti to the one in South Sudan, troops from El Salvador are assisting with surveillance and rapid response, including engineering, refueling and aircraft support operations on the ground.
Now, El Salvador, a country of about six million people, is deploying a unit of 90 combat and other troops as well as three helicopters, American-made, to Minusma, the Mali peacekeeping mission, possibly as soon as this month. The unit will be partnering with Swedish peacekeepers on military intelligence gathering at the newly built Swedish base in the historic city of Timbuktu.
The arrival of troops from El Salvador to Mali coincides with the UN concerted aim to diversify its peacekeeping abilities through more surveillance duties as well as attracting more European troops into its fold, especially as the international coalition in Afghanistan departs. Minusma has about 10,000 personnel hailing from nearly 50 countries; the mission first deployed in July 2013, replacing a French-led military intervention in Mali ousting jihadists and containing rebels.
“This is something we do with pride and honor,” said Col. Hugo Angulo, the military adviser to El Salvador’s mission to the UN, in a phone interview. The unit’s helicopters — MD500s, the “Ferraris of helicopters,” Colonel Angulo said, will function as medevacs for troops and the local population, among other purposes. The helicopters are best, he added, for the harsh desert climate of Timbuktu. (On March 17, near the city of Gao in northern Mali, two Dutch peacekeepers died in an Apache helicopter crash, during a military exercise.)
Each soldier in the El Salvador unit will earn a monthly paycheck of about $1,300 while participating in the mission, Colonel Angulo said. “It’s a 24/7 environment of sand, wind and MNLA [in English, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad] movement. We know they are not going to give us candies but could do bad things to my contingent. The level of risk is very high; the situation is not exactly Miami or St. Petersburg.”
The soldiers, he added, are expected to stay for one year and not even see their family during that time — let alone contend with “no decent bathrooms.”
The Minusma operation is vital to El Salvador, Colonel Angulo noted, as the country will be working under its own flag as a self-sustaining unit. “That is the most beautiful thing that has happened,” he said in an additional phone interview. “Our own sustainability to engage in what is necessary for peace and the environment.”
He added that, “For us it is the commitment — compromiso — as if you’re married.”
People at the El Savador mission in New York easily acknowledged the risk of going to Mali, which is now the UN’s bloodiest operation in its portfolio, tallying 46 casualties since its deployment, but El Salvador emphasized how much it wanted to help. Minusma is facing so many complex challenges, it has become an incubator for the use of sophisticated technological tools, provided through Dutch and Nordic military expertise. These tools are meant to counter the deadly attacks by the wide range of jihadists scattered around northern Mali.
(Minusma has stumbled in serious ways itself; recently, an independent panel assigned by the UN concluded that Rwandan members of a UN police unit in Gao used “unauthorized and excessive force” in killing three Malian civilians and wounding four others during a violent protest in January 2015.)
“Our country is very happy to return back to the international community this important mission for all who are suffering in the world,” Colonel Angulo said.
Moreover, the El Salvador contingent “is fully integrated with UN requirements related to gender,” he insisted. But that amounts to only four female peacekeepers going to Mali: two doctors, a nurse and a cook.
El Salvador has been involved in UN peacekeeping operations since the Korean War and is the second-largest peacekeeping contingent from Central America, after Guatemala. Colonel Angulo said his nation was committed to the education and training of troops in conflict zones, including the missions in South Sudan and Darfur.
“We have been a part of UN peacekeeping missions since the 1950s, so we are very engaged,” Colonel Angulo said, referring to El Salvador’s own civil war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, during which a UN peacekeeping mission was installed from 1991 to 1995. During the war, El Salvador was rocked by tremendous political violence, pitting the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) against right-wing death squads backed by Presidents Carlos Romero and José Napoleón Duarte.
In 1991, the FMLN was formally recognized as a political party and the government signed a peace accord, sponsored by the UN, with the group.
Therefore, the country, Colonel Angulo suggested, has insight into the value of peacekeeping.
The mission, known as Onusal (UN Observer Group in El Salvador), was composed of human rights, military and police divisions and set up to ensure the demobilization of the FMLN. In 2009, Mauricio Funes, a former rebel and a journalist, was elected president of El Salvador, and the FMLN remains the governing party under President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
“El Salvador is a small country, but we compromise with international support and peacekeeping as an operational philosophy,” Colonel Angulo noted.