The long-term consequences of mano dura, or iron fist, law enforcement policies have become a growing consideration for Latin American governments in the wake of El Salvador’s all-out attack on gangs.
While President Nayib Bukele’s reputation has grown off the back of over 60,000 arrests and a steep reduction in El Salvador’s homicide rate, would-be mano dura copycats may be put off by widespread allegations of human rights abuses.
A new book, “Mano Dura Policies in Latin America,” edited by political scientists Jonathan Rosen of New Jersey City University and Sebastián Cutrona of O.P. Jindal Global University in India, explores how these state policies shape organized crime and violence in Latin America.
InSight Crime sat down with Rosen and Cutrona to learn more.
InSight Crime (IC): How new is the mano dura wave sparked by El Salvador’s policies? How would you characterize its current popularity versus how popular it has been in the past?
Jonathan Rosen (JR): In El Salvador, for example, you saw mano dura under presidents Francisco Flores Pérez (1999-2004) and Antonio Saca (2004-2009). Then you saw gang negotiations under President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014). Bukele is having this super-mano dura while at the same time negotiating with gangs.
We did a lot of work in El Salvador. Talking about reforming and rehabilitating gang members or prevention and reinsertion policies is not popular among the population.
And while it’s not new, crime and violence around the region have continued unabated, if not worsened. We wrote an article called “Punitive Darwinism” where it’s a race to the bottom among governments to show who’s the toughest of the tough. It’s not the first time we’ve seen these crackdowns, whether in Colombia, Mexico, or Central America, but politicians are now realizing that they are very popular.
Sebastián Cutrona (SC): The rise in mano dura’s popularity was associated with changes in the nature of violence in Latin America. In the 1970s and 1980s, we had violence perpetrated by the state. With a wave of transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, a new type of violence emerged that was linked to the actions of criminal organizations. This led to a rise in politicians trying to adopt heavy-handed policies, associated with successful US anti-crime policies in the 90s.
When crime rates increase, you can expect politicians to adopt those mano dura policies, but it’s also about how people perceive that violence. Politicians build on this idea of fear and anger among the population. This is how mano dura became extremely popular in many Latin American countries.
IC: You’re suggesting that there are two factors feeding into this: the actual security situation and the population’s perception of the security situation. How do you weigh the importance of these two factors in determining a country’s affinity for mano dura policies?
SC: Perception is the most important factor. Countries like Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, with very low homicide rates still apply some form of mano dura policies. Argentina has “European” standards in terms of security.
It has homicide rates that are almost the same as any European country, but the top concern remains crime.
JR: There are obviously legitimate threats in Latin America, with drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence. As an academic, I sometimes find it hard to understand how Bukele is so popular despite authoritarian practices and human rights violations. But the reality is that people do have legitimate complaints.
Politicians realize they can’t get elected if this is not one of the top issues. This surge in mano dura policies has shown that people are often willing to be softer on human rights if someone’s willing to crack down on gangs. You legitimately cannot compete if you’re perceived to be soft on crime. In some of our more quantitative work, we’ve shown that it’s not just ideology. It happens on both sides of the political spectrum.
IC: You mention that presidential candidates in countries with comparatively high and low rates of violence have mirrored Bukele’s rhetoric. How do you think Bukele’s success will impact how candidates run in elections going forward?
JR: They realize that it wins votes. At the end of the day, when you look at the polling data throughout the region, people don’t feel safe. They don’t trust governments. They’re tired. The more I study this, I think corruption is the number one problem because criminal organizations need the state. Instead of dealing with these tough challenges, it’s easy to have these raids, arrest people, market it, and show what a great job you’re doing.
SC: We cannot disentangle this from other, more structural problems in Latin America, namely distrust in the institutions and democratic backsliding.
These ideas can prosper because you don’t have accountability. You don’t have discussions in the places where these discussions should happen in legislatures. In El Salvador, those with a different view have almost disappeared. Bukele controls the legislature and the judiciary so that discussion is not going to happen.
If we have to think about which countries can at least resist this trend towards mano dura, we can expect either those that have strong institutions and greater horizontal accountability among each of the powers of the state.
This is particularly the case in Argentina, where every time politicians attempt to involve the military forces in domestic security operations, there are civil society organizations that go to the street and say no.
IC: As the term mano dura continues to be used widely to describe a variety of security strategies, do you think that there’s a risk that the term loses meaning?
SC: We’re in the process of working on a paper on that. Even among scholars, there is no consensus about what mano dura means.
We reviewed approximately 30 to 40 publications of scholars writing about mano dura, and we noticed that there is no consensus at all. Most of the scholars were writing about harsh penalties, but a second group of scholars were talking about military policy. But beyond that, you have a lot of disagreement about punitive discourses, mass incarceration, extralegal policy, police violence, and so forth.
There’s a theatrical dimension to mano dura, which is how politicians show off in front of the camera. Then there’s an institutional dimension involving legislation that allows for military involvement in counternarcotics policies, for example.
Finally, there’s the informal dimension, where politicians may adopt mano dura policies without going through the institutional framework. We have identified different types of politicians across Latin America based on those three dimensions, so we are trying to disentangle how this idea of mano dura actually works.
JR: Similar to the word “cartel,” mano dura is a catchall term. It’s not quite a meaningless term, but it’s becoming a term referring to anything related to law enforcement crackdowns.
IC: How do you reconcile the fact that, despite plenty of academic and policy evidence showing the risks of the mano dura approach, it remains widely popular?
SC: I try to bridge that divide between the theoretical world and the real world by writing to different audiences in columns and op-eds in newspapers. It can be helpful to provide a different narrative that is closer to empirical evidence than just political rhetoric.
JR: The first thing I always say when I give talks to different organizations or people in government is I don’t have any magic solutions. The giant divide that exists between academia and government makes many academics very scared about getting into policy. But I just say, here’s what we found, here’s the situation, and here are some possible things to consider. Understanding context and not having one-size-fits-all models really matters, but this gets lost in politics. Many politicians, at the end of the day, don’t want to be too negative about other politicians. They get pushed in that direction because the system is hard to buck.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and fluidity.