In the center of a pit sits a 105mm High Explosive projectile; next to it is Lieutenant Ileana Alvarado of the Salvadoran Armed Forces’ Engineers Commando (CIFA) in her blue high-velocity fragment protection gear, provided by HALO and funded by the US State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA). It is a hot day in the Department of La Paz, El Salvador.
Beside the Lieutenant lie five large sandbags. She awaits approval from her instructor, who has been observing and assessing her skills and competence in the use of the low-order disposal technique. Upon receiving the go-ahead, Alvarado smiles proudly before confidently covering the explosives with the sandbags.
After two intense weeks of theoretical training in Explosive Ordnance Disposal Level 3, Alvarado has a week of practical exercises before the final exam, through which HALO will evaluate her knowledge and skills against the International Mine Action Standard (IMAS).
"That I am graduating is a great challenge for me, an example that women can also handle and work with explosives and a demonstration that today our military is becoming more inclusive."
HALO's program in Central America has been supporting El Salvador’s Armed Forces since 2017. This is the second EOD 3 course to be conducted since then under the program’s Weapons and Ammunition Management (WAM) training framework. But this year, there is a pleasant peculiarity, when she graduates alongside her six classmates, Lieutenant Alvarado will become one of only a handful of women in El Salvador to have receive an International EOD Certificate of this level.
Back at the security perimeter, Alvarado returns to her colleagues. Kneeling in front of the detonator, with a loud and clear cry of ‘Fire!’, she breaks the deafening silence that is typical before a planned explosion.
...... Boom! A huge explosion... The ground shakes. Her colleagues applaud. A couple of mangos fall to the ground from a nearby tree. It just happened! Lieutenant Alvarado shows off her newly acquired EOD 3 skills. Only one more test to go and she will have made history in the army of El Salvador.
No one is more aware than Alvarado of the significance of her achievement and not just for her but for an institution that is highly masculinized across the board. Alvarado reaffirms how the army is gradually taking steps to achieve an armed force that allows for the meaningful participation of all those who serve - including women.
From the ceremonial stage, an army officer announces Alvarado's name over the microphone. She stands up and collects her well-deserved EOD 3 certificate amidst the friendly cheers of her peers and the applause of an entire institution expressing its satisfaction at graduating one of its brightest lieutenants.
In 2017, El Salvador was ranked by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the most dangerous country in the world. Since then, the US State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) has supported HALO's WAM program in providing expert assistance to fragile and conflict-affected states in Central America to prevent the risk of stockpile diversion and unplanned explosions.
HALO also supports national institutions in increasing transparency and accountability in the management of state stockpiles and in adhering to international standards and guidelines. Since 2017, HALO has trained 314 people in PSSM and EOD, including 24 women and has destroyed 4,340 small arms and light weapons, 230,4089 rounds of ammunition and 14.04 U.S. tons of explosives. In addition, 83 armory risk assessments have been carried out and 28 armories and explosive storehouses have been rehabilitated.
The HALO Trust would like to thank the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) for their generous support in funding our work in El Salvador.
The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State or PM/WRA.