The Latin American Left Can Have Its Own ‘Mano Dura’ – Analysis


By Alejandro Turino

Around a third of all murders around the world occur in Latin America each year, most of them accredited to organized crime. Finding effective policies to combat crime continues to be a headache for the region’s governments, regardless of where they stand in the political spectrum.

Traditionally associated with right-wing political parties, “mano dura” (Spanish for “hard hand”) zero-tolerance policies have often been an electorally popular position. For example, a 2013 paper by Alisha Holland, a professor at Harvard University, examined how the Nationalist Republican Alliance, a conservative political party in El Salvador, leveraged the popularity of mano dura initiatives to secure electoral majorities. El Salvador’s current President, Nayib Bukele, continues to campaign on similar policies  and a commitment to lower the country’s homicide rate. After doubling the number of army soldiers at the beginning of his tenure, Bukele was then granted emergency powers by the legislature in March of 2022. This allowed him to arrest more than 40,000 people, or about one percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 64, for suspected gang activities or affiliations.

Despite countless violations of human rights and rule of law, the mano dura approach is making Bukele not only popular among his constituents, but also with his peers throughout the region. This is driven by mano dura policies’ tendency to temporarily lower crime rates and create a public perception that security has improved. After Bukele took office in June 2019, homicide rates decreased from 6.6 murders per day to 1.4 per day by 2022. However, it is also known that the homicide reduction was actually a result of a peace pact between Bukele and El Salvador’s main gangs. Furthermore, the long-term sustainability and success of mano dura has a mixed record at best. Crackdowns by previous administrations suggest that these security measures will do nothing to solve the causes of violence, which are rooted in poverty and social insecurity.

For incumbent leftist parties in the region, this popularity creates a challenge to offer voters an alternative to combat crime effectively while respecting human rights and the rule of law. The question of how to do so is an important one, given that this year, crime will be a central issue in elections across the region.

If you can’t beat them, join them

Leftist governments have tried to stay away from mano dura policies, but most have simply reverted to iron-fisted public security tactics. Chile, Mexico, and Honduras, among others, have chosen to adopt elements of mano dura policies instead of developing their own alternatives.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s 2023 budget mandated a 4.4% increase in security spending, while investing heavily in new police equipment. The move sparked criticisms from his base and had a distinct mano dura taste, especially given the Chilean police brutality of the last few years. Boric, whose government has been left wing since its creation, also authorized and deployed the Chilean military to play a bigger role in stemming the flow of migrants at Chile’s border with Peru and Bolivia.

Early in his mandate, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to as AMLO) attempted to take a structural approach to combating crime through a set of vague policies he called “abrazos no balazos” (“hugs not bullets”).  Initiatives included poverty alleviation programs to provide alternatives to organized crime, the possible legalization of marijuana, and changes in sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking. After a short stint with limited success, kidnappings and killings  remain prevalent today. Consequently, AMLO simply reversed course to the mano dura policies of his predecessors by putting the military back on the streets and in command of the civilian police.

Similarly, Honduran President Xiomara Castro came to power promising to reverse the mano dura security policiesof her predecessors. After a very slow start that saw the homicide rate remain the second-highest in Latin America, Castro returned to a more militarized security strategy. By the end of 2022, Castro even emulated El Salvador’s Bukele, who declared a state of emergency earlier in the year which suspended basic individual rights ranging from freedom of assembly to the right to state-sponsored legal defense upon detention. Castro declared Honduras’ own state of emergency and increased the police’s power of arrest.

The reversion to mano dura security approaches seems to be a trend across the region and a worrisome one. As Holland’s work shows, there is a clear connection between being “tough on crime” and electoral success. As alternative approaches to zero-tolerance policy do not deliver immediate reductions in crime, or at least a perception of such, the temptation to turn to more popular mano dura strategies inevitably grows. For many incumbent leftist parties throughout the region, this creates a dilemma of how to combat crime in an effective way that is both respectful of human rights and leads to electoral victories.

Policies to Move Forward    

Despite this dilemma, a new way forward is possible. Crime is a complex issue with many societal causes and effects, most of them interlinked. For incumbent leftist governments throughout Latin America, steps should be taken to address the issue effectively.

Firstly, Boric, AMLO, Castro, and many others need to rethink the image of what it means to be “tough on crime” and communicate this to their constituents. They should resist efforts to frame alternatives to mano dura as inherently weak and emphasize that their governments will not sit idly by as criminal organizations go on a rampage.

The initial structural changes (poverty alleviation, legalization of drugs, etc.) of López Obrador and Castro do not mean that the role of law enforcement goes away altogether. These institutions, particularly civil police forces, should continue to be trained and funded but with a mandate to protect and serve local communities as opposed to punishing them.

Honduras, for example, has the lowest per capita police force in Central America, and the Honduran National Police’s lack of resources have left it vulnerable to corruption. There have been multiple efforts to address this, but these have come under the mandates of very corrupt past administrations. The Castro government should double down on these reforms and invest adequately in funding and training the civil police force to protect communities from crime. The same applies for Mexico, where previous corrupt governments also attempted security reformswhich failed to decrease violent crimes and eliminate corruption in law enforcement. Both governments must remove the military from public security efforts and make sure civil police forces are adequately trained and funded.

One of the most logical ways to reduce the violence is to stem the flow of weapons used to commit crimes, a task that will require the help of the United States. It is no secret that most of the weapons used by criminal organizations flow in illegally and legally from the US. In August of 2021, the Mexican government actually sued US gunmakers for contributing to the high homicide rate in Mexico. The issue is not much better in Central America. In 2022, US companies exported more semi-automatic firearms to El Salvador than in any other month since 2018. Guatemala remains saturated with weapons: In a country of 17 million people (five million boys and men between ages 15-64), more than 500,000 guns are registered, though there are likely many more unregistered weapons.

Although there have been attempts by the U.S. government, particularly the Department of Commerce, to stem the flow of guns to these countries, they have all been inadequate. Recent US intelligence documents show that Mexican drug cartels have smuggled vast amounts of military-grade weapons into Mexico with the help of American citizens. The reports also show that American officials have known this for years but have done little to stop these weapons trafficking networks inside America. Leftist governments in the region need to collectively lobby and pressure the US government to do more in ensuring that firearm exports are better regulated and not excessive. Nothing is “tougher on crime” than making sure the guns used by criminals to inflict violence on Latin American populations do not reach their hands in the first place.

Preventative Alternatives

There are a number of structural ways that leftist governments can effectively be “tough on crime” in their own way, respecting human rights and rule of law. Many of these are centered on educationdemocratic processes, and fighting corruption. All of these efforts should focus on building trust between communities and the state, which will be key to incumbent leftist governments’ electoral success.

The unfortunate large rates of incarceration provide an opportunity for governments to improve the “employability” of inmates to allow them to actually enter the workforce. A major RAND Corporation study found that every dollar spent on prison education programs saved $4-$5 by reducing recidivism rates. This is money that can then be invested in additional social programs. RAND researchers also found that increasing inmates’ education level is the best way to boost their chances for positive reentry into society.

Organizations such as the Instinct for Life Campaign (IFLC) have identified data-driven measures that have successfully prevented killings. When it comes to value for money, the most effective strategies to reduce lethal violence are investing resources in stabilizing unstable households and promoting positive parenting. Interventions that keep children in school, provide vocational training, generate meaningful jobs, and teach life skills to at-risk youth are also effective. IFLC has already seen up to 10% and 15% annual reductions in violence. Governments should support and scale these types of programs, especially through regional multilateral organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (which is a member of IFLC).

Reducing corruption is another key step in combating crime. Corruption redirects funds that should go towards helping vulnerable populations, and reducing it could help build trust among citizens. Governments in the region should reinstate anti-corruption regimes such as the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Mission to Support Fighting against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), and the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). These commissions have been key in targeting corrupt police officers and other public officials, including lawmakers and judges, and are essential tools in the fight against crime.

A New Mano Dura

Between prevention (education programs, vocational training, etc.) and policy (professionalizing civil police, decreasing weapons smuggling, fighting corruption, etc.) options, Latin American leftist governments have ways to craft their own version of mano dura. A version which is evidence-based, effective, and most importantly, protects citizens and their human rights. Collectively, these policies should yield results that lower crime and violence, build trust between civilians and politicians, and in-turn lead to electoral success for incumbent leftist governments. However, governments need to act now. Reverting to and continuing mano dura policies using the excuse that there are no alternatives is not only untrue; it will also keep the region in a state of endless violence.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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