The Battle After the War: Mano Dura Policies and the Politics of Crime in El Salvador

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Since the advent of democracy, many Latin American countries have experienced a sharp rise in crime and violence. In subjective perception and objective fact, criminality has reached epidemic proportions. This paper explores the rise of a set of controversial police and legal measures designed to combat crime, commonly labeled mano dura (“hard-handed”) policies. It explores both what mano dura policies are in general and why have emerged in post-war El Salvador. The defining features of mano dura policies are the expansion of police discretion and reduction of civil liberties in pursuit of security. The laws and police reforms that undergird mano dura policies are considered and then compared to both militarized and zero tolerance crime strategies. Drawn from a case study of El Salvador, the central argument is that the advancement of mano dura policies can be traced to factional struggles within the main conservative political party, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA). The dominant faction of business elites refused to abandon neoliberal economic policies, despite opposition from popular sectors and traditional elites. In order to avoid further electoral losses and more specifically, to unite the party prior to elections, business elites conceded to conservative elite demands for mano dura policies.


Keywords: Post-Conflict Violence, Democratic Transitions, Crime Policy, Police Reform, Conservative Parties
Stream: Politics, Public Policy and Law
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Alisha Holland

Researcher, Citizen Security Division, Facultad Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO-Chile)
Santiago, Chile

Alisha Holland currently holds a Princeton University fellowship in Santiago, Chile, where she conducts research for two separate organizations: the Facultad Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the oldest social science think tank in Latin America, and Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization with international reach. Her interests include public security, citizenship, political parties, and inequality in Latin America. She has conducted fieldwork in El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela on state responses to rising levels of crime and violence. Upon return from Chile, Alisha plans to continue to examine these issues in a cross-national and cross-regional context for work on her dissertation in political science.

Ref: I08P0173