Central American Defense Council

Some Problems and Achievements

Lieutenant Colonel Laun C. Smith, JR.

“Nicaragua has been invaded by guerrilla forces. We have engaged the aggressors in action near Waspan and Puerto Cabezas but have been unable to contain them. The people in the area have been terrorized to the point where they are afraid to cooperate with government forces. We need help in the form of troops and equipment from the Central American Defense Council.”

This was the urgent phone call received by the president of COPECODECA, the permanent working staff of the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA), on 20 March 1968.*

The call for help started the CONDECA machinery in operation, and the council responded by sending troops and equipment to Nicaraguds east coast to drive out the enemy. They succeeded, and Nicaraguan soil is again free from the gunfire and terrorism of external forces.

The Above action did not actually take place, but it was more than a hypothetical situation. It happened as a joint/combined training exercise planned and conducted by COPECODECA, whose offices are located permanently in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

The United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), headquartered at Quarry Heights in the Panama Canal Zone, had been invited by the Central Americans to participate in their exercise. USSOUTHCOM responded by sending personnel to work with the COPE-CODECA planning staff and by providing land, sea, and air forces for the actual operation.

The fact that the Central Americans wanted to conduct a joint/combined exercise was significant, to the people of USSOUTHCOM, though to them the exercise itself was routine. But to the Central Americans nothing was routine. The professional military planners of COPECODECA, composed of officers from Central American land, sea, and air forces, are in dead earnest about many things. They believe in the concept of a Central American Defense Council. They believe in the idea of training armed forces with sufficient strength to maintain and defend the integrity of the Isthmus of Central America. They believe that they can work together not only to repel aggressors from external sources but also to help solve problems internal to the Isthmus. They wanted “Operation Nicarao,” the name of the exercise conducted in Nicaragua, to be a success.

“Operation Nicarao” had to be a success, for the future of CONDECA depended partly on its outcome. There were, and still are, people in Central America who do not believe in CONDECA, nor do they believe that Central Americans from different governments can work in harmony.

Attempts at unification

Even before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the area now known as Central America was inhabited by Indian tribes who bickered over ill-defined boundaries. The arrival of the conquistadores in 1523, and the resulting military conquest and land-grant system, only served to heighten the bickering and fighting over borders. And since the first declaration of independence from Spain in 1821, border disputes have been a stumbling block to unification of the Central American states.

From the colonial period has come the idea of a unified Central America, for from 1523 until 1821 the area was a political unity under the Governor of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, except for a short time when the government was centered in El Salvador. From then until the present there have been champions for the cause of unification. Ethnically and socially there should be no problem, for the background of the people of Central America is primarily Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and Indian (Ladino), their religion is primarily Catholic, their primary language is Spanish, and their customs and traditions are basically the same.

On 1 June 1823 the United Provinces of Central America declared their independence from Spain, Mexico, and all others who might claim the area. But the Federation was dissolved in 1838, and it was not until 1885 that a movement for political unity was again made. In February of 1885 the President of Guatemala, General Justo Rufino Barrios, invited the other states to join in the Union of Central America. Barrios was killed, though, in April of 1885, and the movement ended. Since then there have been other tentative overtures for union-in 1887, 1895, 1898, 1907, and 1921. The 1921 attempt, victim of political disagreements on the part of member states, was the last effort at federation by the Central Americas.1

But it was not the last attempt at joint action, for the Organization of Central American States (ODECA) was formed on 14 October 1951 at a meeting in San Salvador. The Charter of San Salvador was ratified by all the governments of Central America, and on 18 August 1955 the foreign ministers held their first meeting at Antigua, Guatemala. There ensued the Declaration of Antigua, Guatemala, which decreed that subordinate organizations should be formed under ODECA, to help establish systems of organization and procedure so there would be no restrictions to free intercourse, to economic cooperation, to better sanitary conditions for member nations, and to continued progress in the “integral union” of the Central American nations. The importance of the member nations’ working together to “assure defense against common dangers” was also stipulated.2

As a result of the first Central American Defense Ministers’ Conference, held in Antigua, Guatemala, in January 1956, the concept of a Central American Defense Council was finally voiced. The conferees recommended to the meeting of foreign ministers that CONDECA be created as a subsidiary organ of ODECA, “for the purpose of studying military problems, maintenance of peace and planning for the joint defense of Central America, in coordination with the continental defense plans prepared by the Inter-American Defense Board and in accordance with the provisions of the Inter-American Treaty for Reciprocal Assistance.”3

A special Combined Central American Commission met twice in 1957 to conduct various studies of a military character. Among these was a study for the creation of CONDECA. But a series of circumstances, primarily involving internal political and social unrest, caused the plan to be tabled for several years. In 1961 the subject was broached again, and in September of that year the First Meeting of the Chiefs of Staff of the Central American Isthmus was convened in Guatemala City. A resolution at that meeting said, in part, “The countries of the Isthmus of Central America are signatories to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance celebrated in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, and they are considered to be a geographic unity for continental defense.” Therefore, the resolution stated that the countries of Central America “. . . are obligated to unify and coordinate their forces in defense of democratic interests, the liberty and institutionality of their people, and their human rights, against the totalitarian threat of communism.”4

The committee members then recommended that a permanent Council of Defense be organized and that a commission representing the armed forces of each country should meet in Managua, Nicaragua, to create a Council of Defense. The Guatemala City confereees also determined the bases upon which the Managua conference was to establish the council.5

The Managua Commission met, as scheduled, from 11 to 16 October 1961 and planned the Defense Council’s organization. The Commission presented its recommendations to the foreign ministers of Central America, who met at Panama City, Panama, in December 1962. On 12 December the foreign ministers signed a new charter for ODECA, and among those new organizations authorized was the Central American Defense Council. (Figure 1) Not until 14 December 1963, was the agreement for creation and operation of the Central American Defense Council signed. The defense ministers met in Guatemala and agreed that CONDECA would become an entity upon ratification of the agreement by the governments of the three signatories-Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua-and that the door would be left open for Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama** also, to become members upon ratification by their governments. Thus far in the proceedings Costa Rica and Panama had been present in an observer capacity only, while El Salvador had presented an attitude of reserve.6

Central American Defense Council

Central American Defense Council (Figure 1)

The Central American Defense Council convened for the fIrst time from 23 to 27 June 1964 in Guatemala City, its permanent location. Its permanent working staff (COPECODECA) began operations in September of the same year, with representatives from Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua holding office.7 The ODECA charter was finally ratified by all of the republics by 9 March 1965. It automatically went into effect, and El Salvador and Costa Rica became members of CONDECA on the same date.

Thus, it took the Central American republics from the dissolution of the United Provinces of Central America in 1838 until the first meeting of ODECA in 1955 to overcome the many obstacles to unified effort in common interests. Then it took nine more years to establish an organ for common defense. Even today this unity is made rather tenuous from time to time by the political and economic vicissitudes of the area.

The many revolutions and the resultant changes in governments over the past 147 years were generally fostered by the politicoeconomic ambitions of warring factions of the landed gentry. But to be successful these factions had to have the tacit or real assistance of the military. More often than not the military leaders and the landed gentry were composed of the same people, or of relatives. So it has been that the military leadership of Central America has become closely associated with the conservative status quo. As such, in the past they have been tagged as opponents of progress and, correctly or not, have been blamed for brutal treatment of the masses. Suffice it to say that it has been difficult for the Central American military to live down the accusations of the ages.

The fact that CONDECA was established-to help defend Central America so their common market can operate without external military threats-is an indication that the Central American military man today is a dedicated one who is making progress in gaining the confidence of the people. It further indicates that there is a growing respect for the Central American military. Their doctrine is changing, influenced in no small part by constant contact with United States military men stationed in Central America, particularly in the U.S. military groups. Of great value has been the role of U.S. military schools in the Panama Canal Zone and of U.S. Mobile Training Teams sent to Central America at the request of the host governments.

There is a new attitude on the part of the military, which has been evidenced in many ways over the past few years. The military leaders who form the backbone of CONDECA, and of COPECODECA in particular, recognize the need for a better educated and better trained military. It is possible now for men. from the masses. to become officers. The emphasis on civic action and other public assistance programs is on the increase. Nevertheless, there is still much to be done to raise the professional standard of the Central American soldier. CONDECA realizes this, and COPECODECA is working diligently-in the face of great odds, at times-to correct the problems.

organization and functions of CONDECA

The Central American Defense Council is composed of the defense ministers or representatives, according to their corresponding rank or functions in the respective member states. The Council acts as a consultative organ in matters of regional defense and reports to the ministers of foreign relations (ODECA) through the Executive Council.

CONDECA’s mission is set forth as follows.

The Council is responsible for:

  • Maintaining peace and collective security of Central America.
  • Proposing to the Central American governments convenient and opportune means for the coordinated employment of the armed or public security forces.
  • Recommending the organization of a joint-combined general staff or unification of command when the defense of the Central American Isthmus requires it or CONDECA deems it convenient.
  • Advising the governments of the participating states in matters of Central American defense doctrine related to the application of treaties in matters of collective security.
  • Performing technical studies and gathering information requested by the respective governments.8

CONDECA’s purpose was clearly defined by its organizers at their first meeting. They resolved to establish a defense doctrine that will guarantee the sovereignty and independence of member states and “follow the ideals of democracy, liberty and justice.” They agreed to maintain up-to-date collective defense plans. They emphasized the need to promote and coordinate the civic action programs of the armed forces for the “economic, social and cultural development of the people,” and they proposed to initiate adequate instruction and training so the armed forces will be capable of operating collectively.

To ensure that the latter point is adequately treated, CONDECA decided to study the possibility of establishing teaching centers for the “joint preparation of personnel of the Armed Forces; to arrange for uniformity of equipment, arms, tactical and logistical problems; to adopt agreements through which logistical and administrative systems can be set up; and to hold military exercises.”9

CONDECA meets once each year, unless called into session by a member state. Each state has one vote. Questions of procedure are decided by a simple majority, but resolutions must be approved by a unanimous vote.

organization and functions of COPECODECA

COPECODECA, unlike its parent organization, functions continuously as the permanent working staff of CONDECA. It performs technical studies, plans military exercises, and is in general the professional military planning organ of CONDECA. COPECODECA is located permanently in Guatemala City and is composed of delegates of the armed forces of member states. The chief of each delegation assumes the role of delegate and serves on the Council of Delegates. (See Figure 2.) The Council of Delegates is the decision-making organ, which is headed by the president of COPECODECA.

Council of Delegates

Council of Delegates (Figure 2)

The president of COPECODECA, the chief of staff, and the secretary general hold office for one year. They are replaced on a rotational basis in geographical order from north to south. One country cannot hold more than one office at a time, nor can it hold the same office for two years.10

COPECODECA’s first year of operations, July 1964 through June 1965, was principally dedicated to organization and regulation of the internal operations of the staff. During the second year, however, two training exercises were held and plans were under way for a third.

After careful analysis of the world situation, the geographical position of Central America, and its strategic and tactical position as the connecting land mass between North and South America, the most immediate threat to the area seemed to be that of insurgency fostered by Communist guerrilla forces from without. To Central American military planners the threat of Fidel Castro’s brand of Communistic aggression is very real, and they are determined to keep the Communists from overrunning the Isthmus. Therefore, they recognize that their training must be in unsophisticated counterinsurgency operations and in coastal defense and surveillance.

Operation Halcon Vista

Operation Halcon Vista has become an annual joint/combined exercise to train the countries of the Caribbean area in coastal surveillance and intercept operations. The 1965 exercise was participated in by Guatemala, EI Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States. It lasted from 24 September, when the joint/combined general staff met in Guatemala and began the initial intelligence collection phase, and ended with a critique of the exercise on 8 October. Exercise tactical operations took place from 1 through 6 October.

The operation was planned at COPECODECA headquarters in collaboration with the countries participating. The operational concept called for the participating elements to conduct a military exercise for the purpose of “locating, tracing and intercepting a suspect ship navigating in the Caribbean, and whose purpose was to disembark men, arms, and propaganda clandestinely on the coast of Guatemala and Honduras.”ll

Operation Halcon Vista was beneficial, in the opinion of the Central American Defense Council, for it set a guideline for planning and executing joint/combined exercises with CONDECA countries and the United States. One item of the utmost significance, however, was the fact that it demonstrated that the armed forces of the Isthmus could work together in friendship. This achievement was not lost on the Central Americans; with their first operation successfully accomplished, they approached the next one with more confidence.

Operation Central America

Operation Central America had its origin at the first meeting of CONDECA, by means of Directive No. 001, dated 3 June 1965. It was completely planned by COPECODECA and executed by the Central American armed forces and the Republic of Panama. The U.S. Southern Command was invited to send observers to the operation, which was conducted from 12 to 24 April 1966.

The exercise was planned as a counterguerrilla operation. Its tactical phase took place in the rugged jungle area on the northern coast of Honduras from 21 through 23 April. Honduras furnished the aggressor forces, while all participating countries had units with the friendly forces.

Again, the friendly cooperation of participants in a training exercise, designed to make them collectively more capable of defending their homeland, was outstanding. But there were problems, and the mere fact that these problems were recognized made the training operation a success.12

At the critique subsequent to the exercise, comments made by umpires and other officials were rough, direct, and honest.13 The COPECODECA staff and participating units accepted them with good grace. As they started planning their next exercise, Operation Nicarao, they kept the recommendations made at the critique of Operation Central America in mind.

Operation Nicarao

Planning for Operation Nicarao was started in 1966. It was scheduled and postponed two times. Not until the last minute was it certain that troops already committed by some countries could participate because of problems at home. But in the end, Operation Nicarao was held. Honduras sent observers and controllers while EI Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the United States sent observers, controllers, and troops.

Colonel Jorge H. Hernandez M., first president of COPECODECA and presently chief delegate from Guatemala, commented during a luncheon at USSOUTHCOM headquarters in May 1968 that “Operation Nicarao was a success for us [Central Americans]. If for no other reason, it was a success for the fact that it was held.”

From the beginning, CONDECA had invited USSOUTHCOM to participate actively in the planning and conduct of the exercise. The rapport and general good will established between USSOUTHCOM officers and the COPECODECA staff was sufficient to make U.S. participation worthwhile, even if the exercise had been canceled.

Operation Nicarao was an example of international cooperation in troop training for regional defense. For example, the aggressor forces were composed of elements of the Nicaraguan National Guard and U.S. Army 8th Special Forces troops. The airborne troops consisted of EI Salvadoreans and Guatemalans, jumping from the same aircraft under orders of the same commanders. The naval forces were composed of elements from the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command and Nicaragua, and the combined exercise air force was composed of elements from EI Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the United States Air Forces, Southern Command.

On D-day (1 April) Operation Nicarao forces, under the command of Colonel Adrian Gross from Nicaragua, made two assaults in the Puerto Cabezas area. A beachhead was established by amphibious forces on the coast south of town, and the guerrillas were rapidly pushed back into the town where there were pockets of resistance until D + 3. Also, airborne troops parachuted into an area near the Puerto Cabezas airfield and quickly secured the airfield so reinforcements could be landed by C-130 aircraft.

By the morning of 2 April the Puerto Cabezas area was declared secure, with only “mop up” operations yet under way. A motorized force had weathered a guerrilla attack while traveling through the center of the town and was on its way toward Waspan, another area of heavy guerrilla activity.

In the meantime a simulated drop of airborne troops was made near the Waspan airfield. Shortly afterwards C-130s landed infantry troops on the airstrip, and the guerrillas were forced into the countryside. By the third day of the exercise the motorized force from Waspan and the forces landed at Waspan had effectively eradicated the threat there, with the help of local people who had been terrorized by the guerrillas. The countryside was secure; pockets of resistance in Waspan had been cleared up. The training was over.

The threat to Nicaragua and the rest of Central America was wiped out-by a cooperative effort on the part of nations working hard to make joint efforts for regional progress (like CONDECA and the Central American Common Market) succeed.

The Central American Defense Council’s objectives for Operation Nicarao were attained. It provided training to members of the Central American armed and public security forces in the conduct of joint/combined counterinsurgency operations to include amphibious, airborne, and airlanded operations in towns, villages, open areas, and jungles. It developed standard staff procedures and common Spanish terminology for waging combat. It demonstrated CONDECA’s ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations and fostered the spirit of cooperation among the Central American countries.

Problems were encountered that had not been met in previous exercises, and these were duly noted for correction in later operations. In general, however, the exercise was considered a decided improvement over Operation Central America.

Participating USSOUTHCOM commands were unanimous in calling the exercise a success. The U.S. Army (USARSO) stated that “. . . considering the problems involved and the overall objectives of the Operation, the USARSO rating would be excellent. It is recommended that future exericses of this type be conducted.”14 The U.S. Navy (USNAVSO) noted that “. . . excellent results achieved in the naval portion of Operation Nicarao were a direct credit to the versatility and cooperation of all participants.”l5 The U.S. Air Force (USAFSO) concluded that the exercise was “unquestionably a success in the broad sense. It provided invaluable experience in staff planning and execution never before experienced by our Central American counterparts.”16

Only a few weeks after Nicarao, COPECODECA was participating in Operation Halcon Vista 1968 and planning for Halcon Vista 1969. A command post exercise, known as cus-Catlan, has been planned for 1969. Also, the staff works continuously on studies of defense doctrine, a Central American military education plan, a communications network, a combined air force, and other projects aimed at providing a better defense for their region.

Significantly, former members of COPECODECA’s staff now hold other positions of importance, either in their own country or as representatives of their country to other Central American republics. Brigadier General Carlos Guzman Aguilar is now El Salvador’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. He was formerly chief of that republic’s delegation to COPECODECA. Colonel Jose Cecilio Castro of Honduras, another former staff member, is now in El Salvador as his country’s representative. What effect the former COPECODECA association of these two men will have, if any, on the border and fisheries disputes of the two republics remains to be seen, but they were affable and respected members of COPECODECA and it is difficult to see how this could harm relations between the two countries. As more and more COPECODECA-experienced officers attain new jobs of prominence, it is expected that CONDECA concepts will receive wider and wider acceptance.

It took many decades for the Central American republics to agree to unite. They still have their problems, and it takes time to get their plans, agreements, and recommendations ratified or otherwise approved by the various countries. The COPECODECA staff has demonstrated great patience. They work continuously ahead to the next problem, the next exercise, and the next study. They believe in the mission and purpose of CONDECA, and they are working together to make it a success.

Quarry Heights, Canal Zone

*Central America is composed of the following republics: Costa Rica, EI Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Panama, also located in the Central American Isthmus, is not historically identified with Central America-although Panama has participated in CONDECA-sponsored exercises.

**Although Panama has participated in CONDECA-sponsored exercises, the Republic is not yet member.

  1. Consejo de De/ensa Centroamerlcana, Guatemala, Centroamerica, April 1965, pp. 19-33.
  2. Ibid., p. 22.
  3. Briefing presented at Conference on CONDECA at Headquarters USSOUTHCOM, July 1967, n.d., p. 1. Hereafter referred to as Briefing.
  4. Consejo de Detensa, p. 23.
  5. Ibid., p. 24.
  6. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
  7. Ibid., p. 31.
  8. Briefing, p. 4.
  9. Ibid., p. 4.
  10. Ibid., p. 6.
  11. Ibid., p. 7.
  12. Ibid., p. 8. .
  13. After Action Report prepared for COPECODECA, USSOUTHCOM, 31 May 1966.
  14. Operation Nicarao Briefing, Hq USSOUTHCOM, May 1968, p. 18.
  15. Ibid., p. 21.
  16. Ibid., p. 27.

Lt. Col. Laun C. Smith, Jr. (M.A., University Of Pennsylvania) is Regional Desk Officer for Central America, Public Affairs Office, U.S. Southern Command. He served during World War II as an enlisted man and returned to active duty as an officer in 1952. His principal assignments have been as Information Officer in Moroco and at Richards-Gebaur AFB, Missouri; Assistant Professor of History, U.S. Air Force Academy; Deputy Assistant for Policy and Programs, SAF-OII, from 1962 until his present assignment in 1966. He has written and edited extensively on military subjects, recently as editor of the Supplement to the Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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