Will ‘Mano Dura’ crime policies persist in Central America?

Will ‘Mano Dura’ crime policies persist in Central America?

In the Central American nations of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which make up the Northern Triangle, ‘Mano Dura’ (Iron Fist) policies have led to harsh crackdowns on delinquency and organized crime. Continued high levels of homicides and violence, however, suggest the policy has not been effective.

2015 will be an important year in determining the future of security in Central America. Honduras’ efforts to enshrine a newly created military police in its constitution, signs of a new gang truce in El Salvador, presidential elections in Guatemala, and economic aid from the United States will determine whether ‘Mano Dura’ continues in its present form or if a new approach to security is in the pipeline.

Organized crime, the incursion of Mexican drug cartels and street gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, as well as common pandilleros, have been a driving force behind the huge increase in crime in the Northern Triangle in recent years.

Murders, kidnappings, extortion and drug trafficking have destabilized the Northern Triangle. Furthermore, institutions such as the judiciary, police and prisons, are weak and incapable of adequately dealing with the threat posed.

The response of the region’s governments in the early 2000s was the adoption of heavy-handed policing tactics, which involved the targeting of any suspected gang-members – ‘Mano Dura’ (Iron Fist) as it came to be known (Plan Escoba in Guatemala, Ley Antimaras in El Salvador, and Cero Tolerencia in Honduras).

However, violence remains high in the region and many question whether “Mano Dura” policies have been effective. Events in 2015 will determine whether this heavy-handed approach to security continues.


Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, elected in 2013 on a platform of iron-fist policing, has promised to hold a referendum on whether or not to enshrine the country’s military police in the country’s constitution, after a vote on the same issue was defeated in Congress.

Honduras’ Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), officially sanctioned in August 2013, comprises 3,000 soldiers trained in policing and is indicative of the “Mano Dura” policy in Honduras.

President Hernandez, speaking in his annual address to congress, credited the use of military forces in combating crime with a decrease in homicides from 90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 to 66 in 2014.

El Salvador

El Salvador has experienced similarly high levels of violence in recent years, much of which has been attributed to the local Maras- However, a truce from 2012 to 2014 managed to halve the homicide rate.

Violence gradually increased throughout 2014 as the truce began to unravel, with homicides averaging 15 a day by the first weeks of 2015.

Leaders of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 recently confirmed in a joint statement that a new truce had been in place since 17 January and since then murders have dropped to less than five a day with zero homicides recorded on 22 January.


With presidential elections scheduled for September and current President Otto Perez Molina, who has advocated “Mano Dura” policies, constitutionally barred from running again, Guatemala may see a change of approach.

Manuel Baldizon of the Libertad Democratica Renovada (LIDER) was runner-up in the 2011 elections. He is currently leading in the polls, although as an advocate of the death penalty it seems unlikely he will seek reforms to Guatemala’s security policies.

New types of U.S. aid

“The costs of investing now in a secure and prosperous Central America is modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester.”

The announcement by President Obama promising $1 billion in aid for Central America to curb the crisis of child immigration may encourage change in the approach taken to security in the Northern Triangle.

Writing in an op-ed in the New York Times, Vice-President Joe Biden mentioned, “inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime, and a lack of investment,” as factors contributing to the weakness of the Northern Triangle economies.

This focus on development assistance could indicate a move away from explicitly militaristic support, which the United States has previously pursued with Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative for Mexico, towards a more durable solution to combatting insecurity in the region.

A more expansive approach to tackle insecurity – combatting corruption, upholding the rule of law, judicial reform, and investment in infrastructure and public goods – would complement the one-dimensional approach currently being taken.

Such measures would also help by eliminating some of the risks involved in investing in these countries and enhance the ease of doing business.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Oliver Sheldon

Oliver has extensive experience working with NGOs in Central America and has worked for a newspaper in South America. He achieved a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics and is currently studying for an MSc in Security Studies at UCL with a specific focus on security in Latin America.