Between 1981 and 1984, Special Forces mobile training teams from Panama had trained and graduated the Atlacatl, Atonal, Arce, and Ramon Belloso Immediate Reaction Battalions (BIRIs) with the Belloso the only BIRI trained out-of-country (Fort Bragg, NC). An A-team from 3/7th SFG(A) stood up the Salvadoran Parachute Battalion, a unit that ultimately included HALO qualified Salvadoran paratroopers. In what was a highly classified training mission, Company A, 3/7th, trained the first Salvadoran reconnaissance capability, the PRAL, at Fort Gulick, Panama. PRAL candidates were vetted and upon their arrival at Fort Gulick subjected to testing that included reading, writing, basic math, and the ability to swim. For the next 90 days, PRAL students learned how to conduct multiple special operations missions, spending only 20 days in the formal classroom environment with the rest of their time dedicated to navigating, living, and operating in Panama’s triple-canopy jungle environment.
Upon its return to El Salvador, the PRAL was turned over to Special Forces / CIA paramilitary advisers. The PRAL would go on to conduct special reconnaissance, often directing the paratroopers into guerrilla base camps hidden high in the mountains. From forward staging areas, U.S. advisers assisted in launching six-man teams using assigned UH-1H helicopters which were part of the PRAL “air force”. PRAL missions included not only battlefield intelligence gathering but surgical strike missions against targeted FMLN battlefield commanders and strategic sites controlled or occupied by the guerrillas. The PRAL would later be expanded to battalion size and retitled as the GOE, or Special Operations Group.
According to FMLN battlefield reports, the PRAL became worrisome and then feared. During one PRAL operation two recon men, dressed as civilians, infiltrated a 20-person guerrilla unit by claiming to be deserters from their army unit. For the next month they lived and traveled with the guerrillas gaining their trust. At the appointed time the two, now fully considered to be FMLN material, offered to teach a class on the M-60 light machine gun to their “compas”. At the conclusion of the class the two locked, loaded, and then used the M-60 to mow down the assembled guerrillas. They collected additional intelligence information and then made their way back to the PRAL compound outside San Salvador. In 1993, during a three-day visit with former FMLN guerrillas in San Francisco, California, this author spoke with one female commander about the PRAL. Her unit had been targeted by a PRAL recon team which called in multiple air strikes against their base camp. “We hated and feared them,” she told me. “They were like ghosts.”
By mid-1982, the Green Berets had carried out forty-six separate MTTs with the Salvadoran military. These included counter-guerrilla operations, planning and assistance, small unit tactics, field medical skills, patrolling, harbor security, arms interdiction, advanced photography, heavy weapons employment (e.g. – 90mm recoilless rifle, mortars), dam security, SCUBA operations, and human rights considerations. Still, by March 1984, the guerrillas were taking the fight to the Americans. During that month, two-man Special Forces communication teams assigned to critical Salvadoran election points throughout the country came under fire. In Honduras, U.S. Army Ranger platoons were pre-positioned and standing by with assigned aircraft support. The Rangers were to act as an extraction/body recovery element should the Green Berets come under attack and be unable to exfiltrate on their own. “We were to get them or their bodies,” remembers one former Ranger.
Harassing fire, sniper fire, and full-scale attacks against major Salvadoran military bases with Special Forces teams in place became commonplace. Such attacks occurred at El Paraiso, San Vincente, at the new Salvadoran training center in La Union, and elsewhere. Unknown to the American public at the time, Operation Bield Kirk provided for AC-130 gunships, based in Honduras, as well as AC-130 surveillance platforms, to the Green Berets under attack. The AC-130s would time and again for the course of the war respond to calls for help from the teams on the ground, devastating upwards of hundreds of guerrilla fighters who favored nighttime assaults.
One of the unintended consequences of Bield Kirk was to force the FMLN to order its field forces to cease gathering and moving in battalion size elements. Between PRAL recon teams discovering such movements and calling in Salvadoran air force assets and the Americans on the ground accessing AC-130 support from Honduras, the body counts being experienced by the guerrillas became staggering in numbers.
And the Salvadoran military, using its parachute battalion, began hitting those guerrilla columns trying to move their dead and wounded away from the killing zones. These immediate reaction efforts, as seen when the FMLN hit the training center at La Union, were deadly effective. Transported by the Salvadoran Air Force via the enhanced rotary airlift capability provided by the United States the Airborne battalion caught the attacking guerrilla force as it sought to escape, running them to ground and taking no prisoners. Former Force Recon Marine, Harry Claflin, recalls the paratroopers’ locating guerrillas in ravines around the training center and shooting them down like fish in a barrel. Much later, Bronze Stars for Valor would be awarded to Special Forces soldiers at those cuartels attacked and defended, in part, by the American advisers.