Posted: October 27th, 2022

Latin American Politics: Revolutionary Change

The drivers of revolutionary movements and change differ among countries in Latin America, such as in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua.  However, there are some common features that explain why violence and revolutionary governments emerge.  Also, revolutionary violence often did not lead to the consolidation of revolutionary governments.  In the post-Cold War period, with the exception of Cuba, revolutionary governments began a tumultuous process of democratic transition that led to very imperfect democracies, including the rise of caudillismo – Mexico being somewhat at outlier, at least until the rise of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  Answer the following questions: 

1. What are the common drivers of revolutionary change and why are there such few examples of consolidation of revolutionary governments (Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua being the exceptions?

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2. Mexico and Nicaragua democratized but Cuba did not. What variables explains Cuba’s resistance to democratic change?

3. What are the challenges to consolidating democratic rule in post-revolutionary governments?

  • 350 – 500 words
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  • MUST use ALL FIVE attached files as sources

The Criminal Subversion of Mexican Democracy

Andreas Schedler

Journal of Democracy, Volume 25, Number 1, January 2014, pp. 5-18 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

For additional information about this article

[ Access provided for user ‘samijo1’ at 6 Feb 2021 18:54 GMT from Florida International University ]


The Criminal SubverSion of
mexiCan DemoCraCy

Andreas Schedler

Andreas Schedler is professor of political science at CIDE in Mexico
City. His most recent book is The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining
and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism (2013). At present, he is
conducting public-opinion research on organized violence in Mexico.

Once a century, it seems, Mexico stumbles into dramatic encounters with
collective violence. The war of independence between 1810 and 1821 left
around 200,000 dead, and the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1917 no
fewer than a million.1 Today, after decades of relative authoritarian peace
and only two democratic presidencies, the country finds itself immersed
in yet another epidemic of violence. In the 2000 presidential balloting, the
victory of opposition candidate Vicente Fox of the conservative National
Action Party (PAN) capped a long process of democratization by elections
and ended seven straight decades of hegemonic rule by the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI). Yet even as Mexico’s fledgling democracy has
been struggling to find its way, the country has slid—at first imperceptibly,
then dramatically—into civil strife. It has suffered a pandemic escalation
of violence related to organized crime.

In 2006, after a close and contentious election, PAN’s Felipe Calderón
assumed the presidency amid a lingering security crisis. During Fox’s
term in office, violent competition among drug-trafficking organizations
(so-called cartels) had been provoking more than a thousand homicides
per year, and the number was rising. Although it had not been an issue
during the election campaign, President Calderón decided to make the
fight against drug cartels the defining policy of his presidency, only to
see that fight turn into his term’s defining failure. Relying heavily on the
use of military force, Calderón intensified the unbalanced strategies that
his predecessors had already tried. These approaches included bolstering
the security apparatus without strengthening the justice system; drawing
the military into police work without subjecting it to oversight; chasing

Journal of Democracy Volume 25, Number 1 January 2014
© 2014 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

6 Journal of Democracy

down cartel leaders without dismantling cartel networks; pursuing drug
trafficking while giving traffickers a license to kill one another; arresting
numerous suspects without being able to try them fairly and effectively;
and seeking mass confiscations of drug money and arms while lacking
serious strategies to stop money laundering and arms imports.

Policy incoherence permitted the lingering violence to become
worse, both qualitatively and quantitatively. In qualitative terms, modes
of assassination moved toward demonstrative cruelty, routinized and
ritualized. In certain parts of the country, the public display of tortured,
dismembered, and decapitated bodies became a regular feature of daily
life. In quantitative terms, the number of annual homicides attributed to
criminal organizations shot up from around 2,200 in 2006 to more than
16,600 in 2011. In 2012, drug-related homicides declined for the first
time since 2001, albeit remaining at a level (nearly 14,000) many times
higher than in the early 2000s. We do not yet know, of course, whether
the 2012 dip constitutes the beginning of a trend. Moreover, the prob-
lems that cluster around the task of compiling accurate data on the vio-
lence are massive. Thousands of people have “disappeared” after being
abducted. According to official figures, more than 26,000 individuals
were reported “missing” during the Calderón years.2

Sources: For 2001–2006: Attorney General’s Office, cited in Marcos Pablo Moloeznik,
“Militarizing Mexico’s Public Security,” CHDS Regional Insights 11 (15 February 2009).
For 2007–2010: Presidency of the Republic, “Dataset of Deaths by Presumptive Criminal
Rivalry.” For January–September 2011: Attorney General’s Office, “Dataset of Deaths by
Presumptive Criminal Rivalry” ( For October 2011–December 2012: Lan-
tia Consultores, “Dataset of Violence of Organized Crime” (









Figure—AnnuAl number oF Homicides Attributed to
orgAnized crime in mexico, 2000–12

7Andreas Schedler

When confrontations between armed groups within a state cause
more than a thousand “battle-related deaths” per year, academics speak
of “civil war.” At least since 2001, democratic Mexico has experienced
levels of “internal war” that surpass this conventional threshold. Yet the
war is not one but many. Its major lines of conflict run between criminal
enterprises. Many, perhaps most, acts of private coercion are hostile
acts within a multilateral war among competing cartels. The Calderón
administration routinely attributed 90 percent of drug-related assassina-
tions to “score-settling” among criminal organizations. This figure was
merely impressionistic, not to say propagandistic. Only 10 percent of
victims are innocent, it said; the rest are guilty. As a rule, their cases
have not led to prosecutions.

While the so-called drug war entails various interacting “nonstate”
conflicts, it also contains elements of “one-sided” violence that crimi-
nals unleash against civilians. Profit-oriented participation in illicit mar-
kets forms only a portion of organized crime’s activity. The drug car-
tels are also massively engaged in predatory crimes involving unilateral
violence against civilians. Organized homicides have only been the tip
of the violent iceberg. As criminal organizations have diversified their
activities, the country has seen the dramatic expansion of kidnapping,
human trafficking, and extortion (mafia-like protection rackets). In ad-
dition, insofar as the cartels wage a guerrilla war against state agents,
they participate in a kind of criminal insurgency. In recent years, we
have seen a constant stream of attacks against the state, such as the kid-
napping, torture, and murder of security officials and assaults on police
stations using hand grenades and heavy weapons.

Thus the Mexican state is a warring party, too. In theory, it has a
monopoly on the wielding of legitimate violence. In practice, it commits
criminal violence on a large scale. International human-rights groups
agree that security agents have perpetrated “widespread” human-rights
violations. In part, these violations are expressions of state abuse. They
are the unintended but inevitable consequence of acting with brute
force, little actionable intelligence, and no oversight in an “irregular
war” characterized by endemic problems of information. In part, illegal
state violence is a symptom of partial state collusion. Between January
2008 and November 2012, more than 2,500 police officers and more
than 200 military personnel were murdered by criminal organizations.3
Yet in numerous instances, public officials have collaborated with crim-
inal organizations.

Sources of Violence

How has Mexico turned into a “violent democracy” within just a few
short years? Some might say that there is no puzzle here, for Mexico’s
plunge into societal violence has been a process of Latin American

8 Journal of Democracy

“normalization.” Today, the country’s annual homicide rate of 18.6 per
100,000 inhabitants is fairly close to the regional average of 15.6.4 Be-
sides, violence is not generalized, but territorially concentrated at en-
try and exit points and along the transport routes by which drugs move

transnationally. The states along the
U.S. border (Baja California, So-
nora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo
León, and Tamaulipas) as well as
some states along the Pacific coast
(Sinaloa, Jalisco, Michoacán, and
Guerrero) have been the main theaters
of the drug war.

In recent years, however, orga-
nized violence has been spreading to
more states and municipalities. Still,
between 2009 and 2011, less than 5
percent of Mexico’s municipalities
experienced extreme levels of deadly
violence (defined as an average annu-

al homicide level of 100 or more per 100,000 inhabitants).5 Many con-
clude, therefore, that the current security crisis is bad, but not that bad.
In comparative perspective, it looks like a medium-sized problem, not a
big one, and large parts of the national territory remain completely calm.
Accordingly, Mexican officials as well as citizens often complain that
the crisis draws excessive attention from the international community.

This tranquilizing reading depends, however, on what we are prepared
to accept as “normal.” To begin with, there is the reality that less than
a decade ago Mexico’s homicide rate was only about half its current
“normal for the region” rate. And then there is the exceptional level of
violence in the region as a whole. According to Moisés Naím’s estimate,
Latin America has just 8 percent of the world’s population but 42 percent
of all its homicides.6 By widening the comparative frame from region to
globe we can better appreciate the extraordinary level of societal violence
in Mexico as well as in other Latin American countries such as Brazil,
Colombia, Honduras, and Venezuela. And even if we were prepared to
habituate ourselves to a new level of “structural” violence, we would still
want to explain its recent surge. Most explanations rely on two bundles
of causes: material resources and actor dynamics.

“Resource-focused” accounts note that the material sinews of war
have become more readily available. These include:

Money: The trade in illegal drugs is a lucrative business whose
largest single market lies just to Mexico’s north, in the United States.
This business creates the wealth that permits criminal “oligarchs” to
organize and equip themselves for violence. While the history of drug
production and trafficking in Mexico reaches back to the latter part of

The demand shock in the
international cocaine
market is what made the
war ignite; the structural
availability of money,
arms, and personnel is
what has made it feasible;
and the fragmentation of
actors is what has made it

9Andreas Schedler

the nineteenth century, the market received a massive expansionary
shock in the 1990s, when cocaine-trafficking routes shifted from the
Caribbean to Mexico. Illicit wealth sustains the organization of vio-
lence. Yet the private organization of violence also produces wealth,
and not only because the drug business is one in which market share is
usually seized through deadly force. According to estimates, less than
half the income of drug cartels now comes from actual drug sales. The
rest comes from other violence-based illicit activities, some market-
oriented, others purely predatory.7

Arms: Since the late 1990s, Mexican drug cartels have been engaged
in a kind of subnational arms race, expanding and professionalizing their
structures of defense and repression. Given the porousness of the border
and the free availability of small arms on the U.S. market (especially
since the U.S. federal law banning “assault weapons” expired in 2004),
they have enjoyed unlimited access to means of destruction.

Personnel: According to one much-cited figure, the Mexican drug
industry employs about half a million people. Their ranks include an un-
determined number of professionals of violence who work in the para-
military branches of criminal organizations as bodyguards, street fight-
ers, kidnappers, torturers, and killers.8 Clichés about poor young men
who have nothing to lose suggest that the cartels’ proletarian reserve
army is unlimited. This may or may not be true. We know little about the
identity and recruitment of killers. Up to now, though, labor supply for
the Mexican killing fields has been abundant—even as rumors of forced
recruitment abound and some foresee looming labor shortages.

A second set of explanations puts actors at center stage. Both the state
and organized crime have gone through processes of fragmentation. In
the “good old days” of hegemonic peace, state officials and criminal
organizations institutionalized corrupt exchanges. The former agreed to
tolerate illicit enterprises, the latter to pay for official protection and to
follow certain informal rules of conduct. These “state-sponsored protec-
tion rackets” have now broken down. Both sides have been destabilized
by the multiplication of actors.9

On the one side, the spread of electoral competition has replaced
hegemonic party discipline with party pluralism at all levels of the po-
litical system. On the other side, the government’s strategy of leader-
ship decapitation has destabilized the entire system of criminal actors.
It has fractured all relationships: within cartels, among cartels, and
between cartels and the state. It has, in short, made organized crime
disorganized. In 2006, six major transnational drug cartels were operat-
ing in Mexico. Four years later, there were twice as many. In addition,
more than sixty local criminal organizations had sprung up, developing
every kind of activity that organized violence can render profitable,
from mass kidnapping to private protection. The destabilization and
multiplication of violent actors intensified violence within cartels (suc-

10 Journal of Democracy

cession crises), among cartels (market competition), against the state
(self-defense), and against society (predation).10

The demand shock in the international cocaine market is what made
the war ignite; the structural availability of money, arms, and personnel
is what has made it feasible; and the fragmentation of actors is what has
made it escalate. Together, this bundle of factors explains why the war
is unlikely to end any time soon.

The Societal Subversion of Democracy

In the comparative study of regimes, scholars have tended to look
for the sources of democratic subversion from above, at the high lev-
els of state power. In research on authoritarianism, we have examined
dictatorial strategies of institutional manipulation, which are devised
centrally at the heights of state power and backed by public coercion.
By comparison, we have tended to overlook the subversive powers that
can arise from below and in a decentralized manner from armed actors
within society. Outside the reach of state power, they are backed by
private violence. While the “vertical” or “state-sponsored” subversion
of democratic institutions by coercive governments has motivated an
entire subdiscipline of comparative research, we know much less about
the “horizontal” or “societal” subversion of representative institutions
by coercive nonstate actors.

On the shiny surface of Mexico’s democracy, things by and large
seem fine. Regular elections take place for public offices from the fed-
eral presidency on down; multiple parties peacefully compete for votes;
plural media and a polyphonic civil society mold public debate; and
all the needed democratic institutions are in place (including election-
oversight and information-access bodies of worldwide repute). There is
no dictatorship, and there is no antisystem party or insurgency battling
to conquer state power. Yet there is internal warfare waged by criminal

The generals and privates in this criminal war do not design elec-
toral institutions, rig the vote, bribe electoral authorities, or shave vot-
ing rolls. They have neither the means nor the intention to shape formal
democratic institutions of electoral governance. But the practical effects
of the criminal violence that they wield can be just as damaging to the
democratic integrity of elections as the political violence that openly
antidemocratic ideologues might employ.

Here I focus on the damage that criminal violence does to democracy
in the electoral arena. Free and fair elections are democracy’s minimal
defining institution. Modern representative democracy must offer more
than elections (even well-run elections that are inclusive, free, clean,
competitive, and fair), but it cannot offer less. Criminal warfare dam-
ages democratic elections in Mexico by limiting electoral rights and

11Andreas Schedler

liberties in the narrow sense. Yet even prior to that, it constricts the
wider rights and liberties that nourish and protect democratic elections.
In particular, it subverts basic human rights, freedom of expression, and
freedom of association.

The commission of violent crimes such as murder, torture, and kid-
napping on a huge scale by private organizations reveals a massive fail-
ure by the Mexican state to protect its citizens. In Mexico as elsewhere,
the state’s failure to stop some citizens from wreaking systematic havoc
on others reflects both its inability and its unwillingness to do so. This is
the iron law of lawlessness: When citizens oppress fellow citizens, the
state is involved in the oppressive arrangement, whether by commission
or omission. In the face of systematic societal violence, state agents
often show a similarly systematic indifference. They are complacent
about—or even complicit in—the criminal abuses that nonstate actors
commit. Contemporary Mexico is no different. Countless pieces of evi-
dence point to a syndrome of state abuse, state collusion with crime, and
state indifference toward its victims. This syndrome coexists, of course,
with state weakness, incapacity, and incompetence.11

From 2008 to 2010, Mexico received a 4 (a score of 5 is the worst)
on Reed M. Wood and Mark Gibney’s Political Terror Scale. Such a rat-
ing implies that: “Civil and political rights violations have expanded to
large numbers of the population. Murders, disappearances, and torture
are a common part of life.”12 Perhaps the most significant symptom of
state failure has been the systematic impunity that violent criminals en-
joy. According to figures collected by Human Rights Watch, between
December 2006 and January 2011, Mexican authorities attributed about
35,000 homicides to organized crime. Of these, 2.8 percent led to for-







Baja California

aja C
alifornia Sur































San Luis


Mexico City


mAP—mexico’s stAtes

1. Aguascalientes
2. Guanajuato
3. Hidalgo
4. México
5. Morelos
6. Querétaro
7. Tlaxcala


Gulf of Mexico
Pacific Ocean

0 200 100 400 km.

300 mi. 200 1000

12 Journal of Democracy

mal criminal investigations, 0.9 percent led to formal criminal charges
being filed, and 0.06 percent led to firm convictions.13 For all practical
purposes, the rate of successful prosecution is zero, which amounts to
something we have seen in other places in Latin America: The de facto
privatization of the death penalty. The state grants private actors (as
well as its own agents) a license to kill.

If democracy rests on the principle of popular sovereignty, and if (as
Jürgen Habermas says) the public space is the institutional locus of pop-
ular sovereignty, then democracy appears feeble and frightened across
sizeable portions of Mexico. Analysts now habitually describe the coun-
try as one of the most dangerous places in the world for reporters and
media personnel. Between 2007 and 2012, at least 74 journalists and
media-support workers were killed. Yet murder is only the most visible
violation of media freedom. In 2012, the organization Article 19 docu-
mented 207 “aggressions” against journalists, media workers, and media
facilities. These included acts of intimidation, physical assault, forced
abductions, the seizure of entire newspaper or magazine press runs, and
even attacks on media buildings with hand grenades and machine guns.
Although criminal organizations are assumed to be responsible for the
most brutal violations, Article 19 attributes 43 percent of all recorded
aggressions in 2012 to state agents, thus identifying state and local of-
ficials as the “main aggressor[s]” against media freedom.14

In its 2012 report on media freedom in the world, Freedom House
states that “drug cartels are behind the majority of the violence, but
local political authorities and police forces appear to be involved in
some cases, creating an environment where journalists do not know
where threats are coming from or how to avoid the violence.” In the
face of cross-pressures from multiple armed actors, many in the me-
dia, particularly at the subnational level, have resigned themselves to
self-censorship and silence. In some places, as Freedom House rightly
observes, criminal organizations have even managed to deepen their
influence “from imposed silence to active control of the news agenda.”
They maneuver to capture, not just the state, but civil society too.
Overall, since 2011 “violence and impunity [have] pushed Mexico into
the ranks of Not Free nations” in the realm of media freedom.15

With a certain dry understatement, Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom
in the World report notes that “nongovernmental organizations, though
highly active [in Mexico], sometimes face violent resistance, includ-
ing threats and murders.”16 The strength that civil society has acquired
in many places across Mexico is real, but it has been achieved despite
manifold threats from both private and public agents. Civil society’s
vibrancy does not reflect the strength of civil-liberties safeguards in
Mexico. Instead, this vibrancy attests to the resilience that citizens have
shown in the face of radical violations of their rights and liberties.

During its first four years, the Calderón administration treated the

13Andreas Schedler

internal war’s victims with a mixture of indifference and disdain. In
response to criminal violence as well as official neglect and abuse, a
wide array of local movements have since arisen to defend the victims
of violence. In 2011, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity,
headed by poet Javier Sicilia, served as a kind of reverse prism for the
multicolored spectrum of local and regional movements, blending and
focusing them into a beam visible to the entire nation. Its biggest suc-
cess was to change the terms of public discourse regarding violence.
The movement shattered the generalized presumption of guilt that the
government and its agents had been promoting with their suggestion that
nearly all those caught up in the violence were combatants. It achieved
the formal recognition of victims as victims.

Subverting Electoral Integrity

Even though the primary goals of criminal enterprises are nonpo-
litical, their secondary goals do include political concerns. Just as vi-
olent political movements easily slide into criminal activities, violent
criminal organizations easily move into political activities. The political
concerns of private violent enterprises are typically narrow. As illegal
actors, their overriding concern is the criminal law and its enforcement.
Whether their primary economic activity is market-oriented or preda-
tory, violent private enterprises can survive and thrive only when law
enforcement is ineffective or incomplete. In this sense, they resemble
not (armed) political parties that pursue broad policy agendas, but sin-
gle-issue movements whose concerns are limited to one policy domain.

In their ideal world, criminal enterprises would be able to build en-
during monopolies of crime while enjoying the tolerance and perhaps
even the protection of the state. But in the real world of simultaneous
criminal and political competition (at various territorial levels), as in
Mexico today, criminal enterprises in fact have a hard time building
long-term cooperative relationships with state officials. Aside from set-
ting up “crime-sponsored protection rackets,” these enterprises need to
deploy a broader arsenal of criminal survival strategies. In order to neu-
tralize law enforcement, they must strive to hide and evade the reach of
the state (“concealment”), to colonize parts of it through intimidation
or corruption (“capture”), or to face it down directly through irregular
warfare (“confrontation”).

To use Jeffrey Winters’s term, the commanders of armed criminal
enterprises are “warring oligarchs” who are able to defend their wealth
by private paramilitary means.17 Their wealth sustains their violence,
which in turn sustains their wealth. In relation to the state, they act like
an armed lobbying group with a narrow, but real, interest in shaping the
exercise of state power—and thus in influencing access to state power.
Under democratic conditions, this means that they have an interest in

14 Journal of Democracy

shaping the dynamics of electoral competition. They have a positive in-
terest in seeing that cooperative candidates win elections, and a negative
interest in seeing that uncooperative candidates do not. From a crimi-
nal group’s point of view, the best candidates are those who offer the
prospect of discriminatory law enforcement, tolerating the group while
combating its competitors. Naturally, the best candidates for one crimi-
nal group are the worst for its adversaries. Criminal competition is thus
likely to translate into political competition.

Luckily, Mexico has so far not seen the levels of political violence
that shook Colombia in the 1990s. Yet episodic (and some systematic)
evidence abounds regarding interference by criminal actors in electoral
competition. This interference takes several forms.

Candidate capture: Electoral processes at all levels in Mexico are
now systematically contaminated by the suspicion that drug cartels
coopt parties and candidates through campaign funding or personal cor-
ruption. The assumption that criminal organizations regularly succeed in
fielding friendly candidates is widespread. Naturally, hard facts are hard
to come by. Only a handful of candidates or elected officials have been
prosecuted and sentenced for their ties to organized crime.18 Moreover,
it is unclear how voters would be able to discern captive candidates, as
they are likely to disguise their proximity to criminal actors by adopting
aggressive “mano dura” (hard-line) stances on law enforcement. Mean-
while, a quarter of the respondents to one 2011 survey declared them-
selves willing to “vote for candidates related to drug trafficking in order
to establish peace and security.”19

Candidate cleansing: If the coopting of candidates is hard to detect,
attempts to drive candidates out of electoral politics through intimida-
tion and violence are disturbingly easy to observe. Innumerable candi-
dates, along with their relatives and associates, have received threaten-
ing messages or suffered violent attacks. The most prominent among
these was Rodolfo Torre Cantú, who was close to being elected gover-
nor of the northern Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas when he was mur-
dered just days before the election in a June 2010 roadside ambush. The
next year, farther south and west in Michoacán, 51 candidates for local
offices withdrew before election day.20 We do not know how many more
candidates have been coerced into withdrawing from electoral processes
in Mexico’s violence-torn democracy. And we will never know how
many have been dissuaded from ever running in the first place due to
diffuse or specific threats of criminal violence.

Agenda setting: The climate of violence shapes the electoral arena
by distorting the field of competitors. In addition, it distorts the agenda
of electoral competition. For candidates without criminal ties, the saf-
est course is to remain silent. Since any public mention of crimes and
criminals can have lethal consequences, silence is the best insurance. In
many locales, omert`a, the criminal code of silence, delimits the bounds

15Andreas Schedler

of permissible political discourse in electoral campaigns. You can talk
about anything but them.

Voter intimidation: Violent criminals constrain the range of choices
that voters enjoy in elections, and may even constrain the act of voting
itself. Just as violence or the threat of violence may prevent potential
candidates from running and actual candidates from talking about crime,
it may also keep voters from voting. Emergent empirical studies of how
violence affects voter participation tend to confirm that organized vio-
lence reduces turnout. Aside from deterring participation, criminal orga-
nizations have on various occasions made public efforts to tell voters for
whom they should or should not vote. If the number of voters is large,
if the race is not close, and if rival violent groups exert cross-cutting
pressures, such open criminal campaigns are unlikely to sway elections.
Yet even if it does not change outcomes, the very phenomenon of brazen
criminal intrusion into the electoral arena jeopardizes the democratic
spirit of free and peaceful political competition.

In addition to depressing and distorting electoral competition, or-
ganized violence corrodes another pillar of electoral integrity: deci-
siveness. Through elections, citizens select the most powerful decision
makers in the state. For this selection process to be democratic, it must
be decisive, triggering an effective transfer of authority to the winners.
De facto power wielders within state or society violate this condition
when they remove certain policy areas from the effective decision-
making power of elected authorities (tutelage) and when they prevent
winners from taking office or dislodge elected officials from office
(reversal). Criminal organizations in contemporary Mexico do both
these things.

In too many places, criminal enterprises exercise effective tutelage
over local authorities. Not only candidates but serving elected officials
cannot discuss crime. Local authorities know that they can govern (and
stay alive) only so long as they keep their hands off the business of
violent private actors. The shadow of violence is long. Between 2004
and 2012, 48 active or former mayors are believed to have been assas-
sinated by killers acting on behalf of criminal organizations.21 At least
at the municipal level, organized criminals have proven their capacity to
reverse electoral outcomes that they find displeasing.

The Politics of Silence

Classical liberalism fought for the twofold liberation of individuals.
It strove to free citizens from violent impositions by their societies as
well as by their public authorities. When societal actors build private
organizations of violence and wage private wars against rival organiza-
tions, against the state, and against noncombatant citizens, we are force-
fully reminded that the liberal agenda requires more than just the taming

16 Journal of Democracy

of the state: It also requires the pacification of society. Otherwise the
formal democratic promise of individual liberty risks suffocation, not by
authoritarian state agents, but by authoritarian citizens.

The massive intrusion of freewheeling criminal violence into ordi-
nary life and ordinary politics destroys the weight, autonomy, and in-
tegrity of democratic politics and representative institutions. By chok-
ing citizens’ rights and liberties and by curtailing the powers of elected
authorities, it damages what Larry Diamond calls “the spirit of democ-
racy” to its core. Two sets of simple questions about the situation in
Mexico demand complex answers.

The first set begins with the question: How bad is it? And how much
does it matter for the overall quality of Mexican democracy? How ex-
tensive and how deep are the harms to democracy caused by criminal
violence? Are they limited to the subnational level? Should we think of
criminal organizations as creating societal authoritarian enclaves at the lo-
cal level—what Guillermo O’Donnell once called “brown areas”—while
at the national level democracy remains intact?22 If national democracy
is affected, how much so? Are we talking about problems of democratic
quality or problems of democratic essence? Does it make sense to speak
of democracy in the midst of self-reinforcing violence by multiple private
armies? It is Mexican citizens who will have to struggle for answers.

The second set consists of a single question: Have we seen the worst
yet? Perhaps, or perhaps not at all. Organized criminal violence is a re-
source that many actors can mobilize for their own purposes, be they pri-
vate or political. We may well see a further diffusion of violence as well
as its further politicization. The downward trend in homicides attributed
to organized crime that began in 2012 appears to have carried on through
2013. Organized violence seems as if it may be stabilizing—albeit at a
level that only a few years ago would have seemed shocking or even un-

In his first year in office, President Enrique Pe~na Nieto, the young
PRI governor of Mexico State who succeeded Calderón, has been ad-
justing his policies against organized violence in subtle ways. He has
maintained some policy corrections that his predecessor began. Chief
among these is a shift in priorities away from prosecuting petty crimes
(such as drug possession in small amounts) and toward containing vio-
lent crimes (homicide, kidnapping, and extortion). The new president
has also been centralizing the civil-security apparatus; like most of his
predecessors, he plans to create a new federal police corps. He has sig-
naled greater commitment to respecting human rights and the rights of
victims. He has promised to investigate the thousands of disappearances
that have been left unresolved over the past years and to reform the
public prosecutor’s office, the Pandaemonium of corruption within the
criminal-justice system.

Overall, though, there has been much talk from the new administra-

17Andreas Schedler

tion about strategy but little clarity about its content. The biggest change
has been discursive: from the thundering war rhetoric of its predecessor
to thundering silence. Beyond the few things sketched above, the new
government has said little about crime and violence and by all appear-
ances wants them off the agenda of public discussion. The president
announces positive goals, invoking peace, security, and justice, and
otherwise focuses on social and economic policies in such areas as en-
ergy, education, and tax reform. It looks like a magic formula: Make the
problem vanish by making it disappear from public debate. Behind the
“magic” lies an implicit technocratic appeal: Trust me and my generals,
and let us take care of this. By substituting the law of silence for public
debate, and by entrusting peace and justice to military and civil experts,
the new president is deciding not to tap a civilizing force that may be the
only long-term remedy to Mexico’s ailments: civil society.


1. See Enrique Krauze, “México: La tormenta perfecta,” Letras libres 167 (November
2012): 15.

2. See Paula Chouza, “El Gobierno mexicano reconoce una lista con 26.000 denuncias
de desparecidos,” El País (Mexico City), 26 February 2013, 9. On disappearances and
mass graves (“narcofosas”) related to organized crime, see also Cory Molzahn, Octavio
Rodríguez, and David A. Shirk, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through
2012,” Special Report, University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute, 2013, 18–19.

3. Figures from Molzahn et al., “Drug Violence,” 30. On state abuse and collusion, see
note 10 below. On information problems in irregular wars, see Stathis N. Kalyvas, The
Logic of Violence in Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

4. Data for 2010 is from Hemispheric Security Observatory, Report on Citizen Security
in the Americas 2012 (Washington, D.C.: Organization of American States, 2012). I bor-
row the term “violent democracy” from Enrique Desmond Arias and Daniel M. Goldstein,
eds., Violent Democracies in Latin America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

5. Author calculations with homicide statistics from the National System of Health In-
formation ( and population data from the 2010 national census
( Note that the World Health Organization considers violence to be
“epidemic” once it surpasses 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

6. Moisés Naím, “La gente más asesina del mundo,” El País, 15 December 2012.

7. See, for example, Edgardo Buscaglia, “México pierde la guerra,” Esquire, March
2010, 95–110. On the cocaine boom, see Ioan Grillo, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal
Insurgency (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), ch. 4. For a critical revision of commonsensi-
cal stories and figures on the transnational drug trade, see Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo,
El crimen como realidad y representación: Contribución para una historia del presente
(Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2012), ch. 5.

8. See Ana Arana, “Narco SA, una empresa global,” CNN Expansión, 20 July 2009,
available at; and Alejandro
Hope, “La milagrosa multiplicación de los sicarios,” Blog Animal Político, 23 October
2011, available at

18 Journal of Democracy

9. See Richard Snyder and Angélica Durán-Martínez, “Does Illegality Breed Vio-
lence? Drug Trafficking and State-Sponsored Protection Rackets,” Crime, Law, and So-
cial Change 52 (September 2009): 253–73.

10. See, for example, Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, “La raíz de la violencia,” Nexos
Online, June 2011; and Javier Osorio, “Democratization and Drug Violence in Mexico,”
Paper presented for the workshop on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale, October 2012.

11. See, for instance, reports by human-rights organizations, such as Amnesty Interna-
tional, Known Abusers, But Victims Ignored: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Mexico (Lon-
don: Amnesty International, 2012); Human Rights Watch, Neither Rights Nor Security:
Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s “War on Drugs” (New York: Human
Rights Watch, 2011); and Human Rights Watch, Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring
Cost of a Crisis Ignored (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013).

12. See

13. See Human Rights Watch, Neither Rights Nor Security, 15.

14. See Article 19, Doble asesinato: La prensa entre la violencia y la impunidad: In-
forme 2012 (Mexico City: Article 19, 2013), 10–17 ( Assassination
figures are from Molzahn et al., “Drug Violence,” 30. The website “The Two of Us Met
that Terrible Night” contains photographs and biographical notes of murdered journalists.

15. See Freedom House, “Mexico,” Freedom of the Press 2012 (New York: Freedom
House, 2012), In its 2013
World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Mexico 153rd among 179
countries in the world. Its situation is classified as “difficult” for journalists, which is the
second-worst category Reporters Without Borders uses to rate global media liberties. See,1054.html. For a narrative account of Mexican
journalism under conditions of criminal war, see John Gibler, To Die in Mexico: Dis-
patches from Inside the Drug War (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011).

16. For the Freedom House report, see Under “websites for
peace” (sitios por la paz), Sicilia’s organization offers links to like-minded movements.

17. Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

18. In one embarrassing 2009 episode, colloquially known as the “Michoacanazo,”
federal police and soldiers detained eleven mayors (plus sixteen other high-level officials
and a judge) in the state of Michoacán on charges of colluding with organized crime. Two
years later, all had been released for lack of evidence.

19. Raúl Benítez Manaut, ed., Encuesta Ciudadanía, Democracia y Narcoviolencia
(Cidena) 2011 (Mexico City: Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia,
2012), 57.

20. See Sandra Ley, “To Vote or Not to Vote: Elections in the Midst of Violence,” 71st
Annual Conference, Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, 11–14 April 2013.

21. Data for 2004 through 2010 come from the Drug Violence Dataset of the Justice
in Mexico Project, Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego, available at http:// Data for 2011 and 2012 come from Molzahn,
et al., Drug Violence, 29.

22. Guillermo O’Donnell, “The Quality of Democracy: Why the Rule of Law Matters,”
Journal of Democracy 15 (October 2004): 41.


Nicaragua: A Return to Caudillismo

Kai M. Thaler

Journal of Democracy, Volume 28, Number 2, April 2017, pp. 157-169 (Article


Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

For additional information about this article

[ Access provided for user ‘samijo1’ at 6 Feb 2021 18:54 GMT from Florida International University ]



a returN to caudillismo

Kai M. Thaler

Kai M. Thaler is a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard Uni-
versity and a Democracy Doctoral Fellow at the Ash Center for Dem-
ocratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy
School of Government.

On 6 November 2016, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega of the
Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was reelected to a third
consecutive term, winning 72 percent of the vote in a contest marred
by the exclusion of the main opposition coalition. Ortega has been at
the center of Nicaraguan politics for nearly four decades. A leader of
the 1979 Sandinista revolution that overthrew longtime dictator An-
astasio Somoza, he also held the presidency from 1985 to 1990, when
he was defeated in Nicaragua’s historic 1990 presidential election by
democratic opposition leader Violeta Chamorro. After unsuccessful
attempts at regaining the presidency as the candidate of the FSLN in
1996 and 2001, he was returned to office in 2006.

Since this dramatic comeback, Ortega has steadily abandoned the
ideals that he and the FSLN had professed as they swept to power at
the head of an armed leftist revolution. While solidifying his power, the
72-year-old Ortega has reversed his relations with former enemies. He
now enjoys backing from the private business sector and the Catholic
Church hierarchy, and maintains fairly smooth relations with the United
States. This onetime scourge of the right-wing Somoza dictatorship still
employs revolutionary symbols and rhetoric, but has made no move to
rebuild the FSLN’s coalition of urban workers, segments of the peas-
antry, civil society groups, and moderate members of the bourgeoisie.
Instead, under Ortega the FSLN has become a hegemonic ruling party
with a personalist bent, while the president himself has shape-shifted
from left-wing revolutionary populist to right-leaning neopatrimonial
dictator in the older Latin American style.

The opposition’s call for voter abstention in the November 2016 gen-

Journal of Democracy Volume 28, Number 2 April 2017
© 2017 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

158 Journal of Democracy

eral election set up the landslide win for Ortega, whose vice-presidential
running mate was his politically influential wife Rosario Murillo. Many
Nicaraguans fear that they are witnessing the rise of a new dynasty eerily
reminiscent of the Somoza family dictatorship that the FSLN deposed
in 1979. Outmaneuvered by the nimble Ortega, internally divided, and
ground down by selective state repression and harassment, the opposition
is hobbled and pessimistic. Having ignored the opposition’s abstention
campaign, Ortega rules virtually unchallenged as his country continues
its slide from competitive authoritarianism toward authoritarianism plain
and simple. In the course of building his power since 2006, Ortega has
raised numerous obstacles to any turn back toward democracy.

Nicaragua’s democratic institutions remained fragile in the wake of
the Sandinistas’ defeat at the polls in 1990. Even when Ortega accept-
ed his defeat by Chamorro, it was far from clear whether he respected
democratic norms. While in opposition, the FSLN sought to “rule from
below” via disruptive popular mobilizations that could “make Nicaragua
virtually ungovernable.”1 Nonetheless, the postwar democratization ef-
forts of the 1990s equipped the country with the separation of powers,
an independent and legitimate electoral system, and depoliticized pro-
fessional security forces. In his quest for a way back to power, Ortega
would erode each of these democratic bequests.

After his failed bids to win the presidency in 1996 and 2001, Ortega
succeeded in 2006 despite winning only 38 percent of the vote, the same
percentage that he had received in 1996 and a lower one than he had
claimed in 2001.2 His 2006 victory resulted from institutional changes
in the electoral system and a split among leaders on the right. The FSLN,
meanwhile, had become more of Ortega’s personal following, especially
after many former revolutionary officials left to form the Sandinista Re-
newal Movement (MRS) in 199


Most importantly, the threshold for a presidential candidate to win the
election in the first round and avoid a runoff had been reduced from 45
percent to 40, or 35 if the leading candidate enjoyed at least a 5 percent
margin. This change resulted from the infamous “Pacto” concluded in
1999–2000 by Ortega and then-President Arnoldo Alemán of the Con-
stitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), who sought insurance against punish-
ment for corruption and a guarantee of future influence. Through this
agreement, the PLC and the FSLN established a party “duopoly” that
facilitated the vote-threshold reduction, while the courts and electoral
commission became subject to partisan control.4 Alemán’s handpicked
successor Enrique Bola~nos won the 2001 election, but the politicized
institutions and the electoral-threshold change set the stage for Ortega’s
victory in 2006. That year, the right split between Alemán and Bola~nos
after Bola~nos prosecuted his former mentor for embezzlement, and
Ortega’s pact with Alemán promised to let the latter back into politics.

This pattern of institutional changes meant to increase the FSLN’s

159Kai M. Thaler

power continued after Ortega took office in January 2007, as the new
president “walked a tightrope between democracy and autocracy.”5 The
opposition parties, which controlled the unicameral, 92-seat National
Assembly, quickly became worried about Ortega’s authoritarian aspira-

The 2008 municipal elections offered an early test of Ortega’s demo-
cratic bona fides—one that he failed. The Supreme Electoral Council
(CSE) opened the campaign by stripping the MRS of its juridical per-
sonhood, then forcibly placed an Ortega loyalist at the head of the right-
of-center Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).6 This drove the MRS and
the ALN to band together with the rightist PLC under the latter’s banner.
On election day, the FSLN expanded the number of municipalities it
controlled from 85 to 91, unfazed by opposition and independent ob-
servers who charged it with vote fraud and manipulation. The opposition
saw its influence shrink despite mass protests in Managua, and Ortega
undercut municipal autonomy by putting his wife in charge of partisan
Citizens’ Power Councils (CPCs) that acted as parallel local govern-
ments and controlled the distribution of public goods and services.

Eroding Democracy

In 2009, Ortega went to the Supreme Court—a body stacked, like the
CSE, with FSLN loyalists—to overturn a 1995 constitutional provision
banning consecutive presidential terms. During 2010, at the prodding of
FSLN leaders in the National Assembly, the courts steadily struck down
laws on the separation of powers, thereby increasing Ortega’s power
over judicial and civil service appointments. The Assembly also passed
changes that allowed politicization of the country’s security forces,
while expanding these agencies’ domestic powers.

In the 2011 elections, the CSE refused to grant credentials for poll
observers from domestic civil society groups and opposition parties, and
exerted partisan control over the electoral process at all levels. Once
again, the opposition alleged fraud, but the CSE did not publicly provide
vote totals at the polling-station level, as required by law, only publish-
ing municipal-level percentages. Moreover, international and domestic
observers were blocked from multiple polling stations. These and other
tactics led the Carter Center to label the 2011 vote “the least transparent
national election in Nicaragua in the last 20 years, the results of which
have proven to be impossible to verify.”7 The CSE declared Ortega the
winner with 63 percent of the vote, a striking increase over 2006 even
considering the weakness of his 2011 opponent, Fabio Gadea.

During Ortega’s new term, the erosion of democratic institutions
picked up speed.8 With 63 Assembly seats, the FSLN had the power to
change particular constitutional provisions and even to call a constitu-
ent assembly to rewrite the document. In the 2012 municipal elections,

160 Journal of Democracy

FSLN candidates—all of them chosen by Ortega and Murillo—won 134
of 153 mayorships amid widespread abstentions and fraud charges.9

In 2012 and 2013, the Assembly passed new laws to enable the con-
struction of a Nicaraguan interoceanic canal, a longstanding aspiration
among the country’s politicians. Supporters cast the project—intended
to outmatch the recently enlarged Panama Canal in size and capacity—
as a potential economic boon for Nicaragua, whose roughly six-million
people have Central America’s lowest per capita income.10 The FSLN
railroaded these laws through with minimal debate and no background
studies. The canal project’s concessionaire, a shadowy Chinese com-
pany known as HKND, was to receive sovereign control over canal in-
frastructure and property for fifty years, with an option to extend these
privileges for another fifty. The Nicaraguan government gained broad
authority to expropriate both private property and constitutionally pro-
tected indigenous communal property along the planned canal route be-
tween Punta Gorda on the Caribbean and Brito on the Pacific, but also
exposed the assets of the country’s central bank to claims by HKND in
the event of disputes.

Even more disturbingly, constitutional reforms in 2014 expanded the
president’s power to rule by decree and permitted unlimited reelection.
The defense and governance ministries were removed from the security
forces’ chain of command, reducing oversight and leaving Ortega in
charge of appointing military and police commanders. The 2015 Sov-
ereign Security Law erased barriers between internal and external se-
curity, and gave the Ortega government wide discretion to use coercion
against any person or entity deemed a threat to the state, society, or
economy. Commercial interests developed by the military and its lead-
ers have restrained them from challenging Ortega’s decisions.11

The CPCs, which served as both a means of distributing FSLN pa-
tronage and a forum for local-level citizen involvement in politics, have
been replaced by Family, Community, and Life Cabinets (Gabinetes),
now also linked to the police and used to keep communities under sur-
veillance. A broader policy of corporatism has seen the government
coopt and favor certain civil society organizations while suppressing
others; influence nongovernmental nodes of power to undercut potential
challengers; and respond with force when protests break out.

The Emerging FSLN Party-State

The November 2016 elections marked the emergence of a full-scale
FSLN party-state. The FSLN may once have had a collective leadership,
but now it is firmly under the control of the Ortega-Murillo family. In
May, Ortega had refused to allow any international electoral observation.
The 65-year-old Murillo, whose public profile grows ever higher and
whom many Nicaraguans see as the government’s true power-wielder,

161Kai M. Thaler

became the FSLN’s vice-presidential candidate. Should Ortega resign or
die—there are persistent rumors that he is chronically ill—she will suc-
ceed him.12 Civil society and media organizations came under growing
government pressure. Foreign researchers and NGO officials studying
the canal project or political issues were surveilled or deported.13

The coup de grâce for what remained of democracy in Nicaragua
came in June 2016, as the FSLN delegitimized the political opposition
and removed it from the legislature. On June 8, after the opposition
had agreed to organize under the umbrella of the Independent Liberal
Party (PLI) for the elections, the Supreme Court ordered Eduardo Mon-
tealegre’s removal as PLI leader. Pedro Reyes, an Ortega ally, was in-
stalled as the new party leader, and he demanded that PLI deputies and
their MRS alliance partners submit to his leadership. When they refused,
the CSE stripped them of their Assembly seats, ruling that their election
had been invalidated by their deviation from the “party line.”14 The only
opponents to Ortega and the FSLN left on the November 2016 ballot
were Alemán’s PLC (which still had a pact with Ortega), Reyes’s com-
promised “new” PLI, and several marginal parties.

Ortega’s farcical manipulation of the electoral system drew interna-
tional condemnation, but he did not waver. Within Nicaragua, there was
a mix of acceptance from FSLN supporters and outrage or resignation
from the opposition. The experience of fraud in past elections had bred
apathy and discouragement. The FSLN enjoyed a clear advantage when
it came to campaign advertising. In Managua, the non-FSLN parties on
the ballot did have some signs and banners up, but the city was heavily
papered with FSLN posters, some showing only Murillo. Ortega and
Murillo were the only candidates anywhere in Nicaragua to have bill-
boards, and their campaign signs hung on many government buildings
until just four days before the vote, a violation of electoral laws. In
Nicaraguan elections, telephone poles are often painted with the colors
and names of parties or candidates; in 2016, many poles in Granada,
Masaya, and the capital of Managua still bore the names of opposition
candidates from past elections, or had been repainted in the FSLN colors
of red, white, and black. There was little graffiti of any kind (whether
for or against the government), suggesting general apathy. Protests were
relatively small.

In Managua, election day was eerily calm. Normally bustling streets
were largely empty. The opposition’s abstention call seemed as if it was
succeeding. Few people lined up at the polling stations in central Ma-
nagua, and opposition press reports and online photos from around the
country, even those carried by the government outlet El Nuevo Diario,
showed heavy turnout in only a few areas. The election was largely peace-
ful, though there was an armed clash near polling stations in the northern
Nueva Segovia region, and ballot boxes were burned at several precincts
in Nueva Guinea, a region unsettled by opposition to the proposed canal.

162 Journal of Democracy

By evening, however, preparations for Ortega and Murillo’s vic-
tory celebration were in full swing. The CSE’s final results accorded
them 72.4 percent of the vote. The FSLN won 70 Assembly seats, and
Alemán’s PLC became the leading “opposition” party with 13 seats.
Parliamentary opposition barely hangs on as a ghost. It is clear that large
numbers of voters abstained, even if the stay-away rate was nowhere
near the 80 percent that some opposition leaders claimed. The CSE re-
ported turnout of 68 percent, but that is almost surely false. Nicara-
guans’ faith that they can express their political preferences at the ballot
box and have it matter is clearly dwindling.15

Befriending Old Enemies

Ortega, running as the incumbent against a neutered and factional-
ized opposition, controlling the courts and the election-oversight body,
and generally enjoying approval ratings above 50 percent, was always
likely to win, even absent a boycott.16 How has Ortega increased his
authoritarian control while maintaining support among important con-
stituencies? Two key factors are strategic alliances with former rivals,
and the Venezuelan-aided continuation of Nicaragua’s macroeconomic
growth and stability.

Ortega has established close relationships with individuals and inter-
est groups who once opposed him, while also maintaining stable and
cooperative relations with the United States, the FSLN’s great enemy
in the 1980s. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church fiercely op-
posed the FSLN during the revolution, but Ortega repaired relations
with the powerful Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo (b. 1926) before
returning to the presidency. Ortega and Murillo, who had lived together
for decades, were finally married by Obando y Bravo. Ortega also com-
mitted to a hard-line, Church-friendly anti-abortion stance and, revers-
ing the FSLN’s historical commitment to women’s rights, outlawed
abortion in 2007. Under the slogan “Christian, Socialist, and In Solidar-
ity,” Ortega and the FSLN now incorporate Christianity as a key part of
their platform.

Ortega’s Christian turn helped to split votes off from the right-wing
opposition; it also allowed Ortega to capitalize on the rising influence
of Protestant evangelical churches in the country. Moreover, Obando y
Bravo is close to CSE head Roberto Rivas. The cardinal also supported
Ortega when the president faced accusations of sexual abuse from his
stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez. FSLN officials were told in no un-
certain terms that the allegations were false and not to be discussed, and
Murillo stood by Ortega against her daughter. Many see this as the mo-
ment when the ambitious Murillo sealed her power over Ortega.

Ortega has coopted other former opponents, while delegitimizing and
slapping down those who question his authority. Ortega’s 2006 running

163Kai M. Thaler

mate was Jaime Morales Carazo, a civilian leader of the Sandinistas’
old enemies, the Contras. Edén Pastora and Brooklyn Rivera, anti-FSLN
rebel commanders in the 1980s, also reconciled with Ortega, though
Rivera was purged from the FSLN in 2015 for challenging Ortega over
the protection of indigenous lands. As it became clear that Ortega had
actually begun following a crony-capitalist program, Nicaragua’s eco-
nomic elites, represented most coherently by the Supreme Council of
Higher Enterprise (COSEP), also turned from skeptics and opponents of
the FSLN into supporters or fellow travelers.

Billionaire businessman Carlos Pellas described economic elites’
relations with Ortega as an “alliance entailing a unity of purpose . . .
in a political effort for development and [creating] confidence in the
business sector.”17 This alliance has worked well both for the preexist-
ing elite and for crony capitalists associated with Ortega: Nicaragua’s
economic growth has primarily benefited a few, with a huge increase
in multimillionaires since 2010 in what remains the Americas’ second-
poorest country. Land inequality, reduced by revolutionary-era agrar-
ian reforms, has skyrocketed,18 while farmers from the Pacific coast are
violently pushing the agricultural frontier into indigenous lands in Ni-
caragua’s east.

Throughout all this, Ortega has enjoyed a relatively peaceful relation-
ship with the United States. Ortega is still known to denounce Washing-
ton when rousing his followers, but he is hardly another Hugo Chávez
or Evo Morales. On the contrary, Ortega’s stances in favor of business
and free trade have brought him into line with U.S. economic interests.
Nicaragua’s military cooperates closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and
armed services in the fight against the drug trade. Moreover, Ortega
served U.S. interests by keeping Nicaragua’s southern border with Costa
Rica closed against thousands of Cuban and other migrants seeking to
reach the United States from late 2015 through 2016. This cooperation
forestalled stronger U.S. criticism of Ortega’s creeping authoritarianism.

Traditional sources of FSLN support, by contrast, have been discard-
ed, and civil society has been coopted or coerced into a shrinking role.
With Murillo serving as government spokesperson, access to official
information and advertising money has been restricted to government-
allied outlets. Ortega’s children now control a range of media organiza-
tions; the formerly pro-FSLN but independent Nuevo Diario has become
completely partisan; some critical outlets have faced hostile takeovers
or license revocations; independent press organizations have been infil-
trated and taken over following the creation of a pro-FSLN journalists’
union; and remaining opposition publications such as La Prensa and
Confidencial have seen increasing government interference in their af-
fairs.19 These circumstances severely constrain press scrutiny of wrong-
doing and corruption.

Civil society organizations have similarly found themselves subject-

164 Journal of Democracy

ed to investigation, funding restrictions, and, when they have organized
protests, attacks by gangs of FSLN supporters and, increasingly, po-
lice. Government critics have suffered break-ins at their offices, lost
their academic posts, and at times been physically attacked. Unions and
women’s organizations, historically popular bulwarks of the FSLN,
have been corporatized or marginalized. Among Ortega’s six surviv-
ing fellow FSLN comandantes, only Bayardo Arce remains a supporter
of the current FSLN; even Humberto Ortega, the president’s younger
brother and a former Sandinista military chief, displays a mix of am-
biguity and opposition. Finally, the poor, whose liberation supposedly
once formed the FSLN’s main goal, are now viewed as a collection of
individuals whose votes can be bought by a combination of economic
growth and targeted patronage.

Macroeconomic Stability and Microeconomic Patronage

Ortega and his supporters credit his policies and alliances with pro-
ducing a record of steady macroeconomic growth. Critics, however,
point out that Ortega entered office in 2007 with the best macroeco-
nomic conditions enjoyed by any Nicaraguan government since the
1970s, and that the level of growth achieved during his tenure has been
merely consistent with what the country achieved under his post-1945
predecessors. Ortega’s economic policies have reinforced his rule in
three ways. First, a deal with Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chávez
brought Nicaragua loans and subsidized oil. Second, international lend-

Source: World Bank,

4.0 3.7








4.3 4.2






4.5 4.7







l G






Figure—AnnuAl PercentAge gDP growth in nicArgAguA,

165Kai M. Thaler

ers and domestic capitalists were reassured by apparently responsible
fiscal management and respect for private property. Finally, Venezuelan
money and growth have funded patronage for the poor.

By 2007, Nicaragua’s economy had seen a decade and a half of steady
growth, reduced debt, and strong trade relations. Following setbacks due
to corruption during Alemán’s presidency, relative stability and confi-
dence had returned under Bola~nos. As the Figure shows, Ortega was
simply continuing a growth trend that was disrupted only by the 2009
global recession. Excluding that disruption, GDP growth from Alemán
in the late 1990s through Ortega in 2014 averaged 4 percent a year.

Economic performance under Ortega is less impressive when one
considers two key factors: the global commodities boom of the 2000s,
and Nicaragua’s special economic relationship with Venezuela. The
commodities boom saw rising exports of and profits from such Nicara-
guan products as minerals, timber, coffee, and beef. Remittances from
Nicaraguans abroad also rose. Most important, however, was the flow of
oil and petrodollars from Venezuela.

Immediately after taking office, Ortega joined Chávez’s Bolivarian
Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The two countries
then established the Petrocaribe program: Venezuela would meet Nica-
ragua’s oil needs, and Nicaragua’s national oil importer Petronic would
pay for half of each shipment within ninety days and the other half in
twenty-five years, at low interest. To implement the deal, Petronic paid
the Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA the 50 percent owed for
each shipment within three months, using government funds. The Ven-
ezuelan company then loaned the same amount (over the term of a quar-
ter-century) to Caruna, an obscure FSLN-owned bank. This meant that
public funds were paid to PDVSA and then sent back to a private entity
in Nicaragua. This was the channel through which most Venezuelan aid
has flowed to Nicaragua.

It is unclear exactly how much of this aid—it totaled nearly US$4.5
billion between 2008 and 2015—has gone to private ends, but the PD-
VSA loans accounted for more than $3.5 billion of it. The International
Monetary Fund estimates that 38 percent of the funds loaned to Caruna
went to pay for public-sector projects designed to serve clientelist aims
and to bolster the legitimacy of the government, while the remaining
62 percent went to private projects. Caruna money has been traced to a
web of companies controlled or influenced by the FSLN and its leading

Venezuelan money helped to insulate Ortega from international
pressure. With private-sector growth strong, the balance-of-payments
picture looking better, and antipoverty programs being funded by Ven-
ezuela, international financial institutions have maintained support for
Nicaragua despite its leaders’ political illiberalism. When the United
States and the European Union restricted aid flows following the dis-

166 Journal of Democracy

puted 2008 municipal elections, Venezuelan cash cushioned that blow
as well. Continued growth and new export opportunities have kept do-
mestic capital appeased.

The “public” use of the Venezuelan money has been to fund lower-
cost, small-scale credit and development programs, with government
officials or party-controlled CPCs and Gabinetes deciding where the
money goes. One of the most popular programs has been Plan Techo, a
scheme to give corrugated zinc roof panels to poor families. It is heavily
publicized and a big help to the poorest Nicaraguans, but it costs very
little. The same holds for microloans, programs to supply schoolchil-
dren, food and livestock grants, and neighborhood-level road improve-
ments. The FSLN directs all these programs toward its supporters. Each
program costs only tens of millions of dollars. Together, the programs
build loyalty among citizens whose circumstances are precarious. The
remainder of the privatized money has allowed Ortega, Murillo, and
their associates to boost their control over key parts of the economy.

What Comes Next?

Political pessimism is rife among Nicaraguans and outside observers
alike. Ortega’s positioning of Murillo as his successor has set the stage for
a family dynasty: The couple’s children control many key businesses, and
their son Laureano has emerged on the political stage as a key player in
promoting the proposed canal project. Ortega has eroded opposition and
checks and balances within the government and society. Protests against
the 2016 election results and continued mobilization against the planned
canal have been met with police repression. Internal avenues for change
appear to be blocked. The opposition lacks unity and charismatic lead-
ership, though the ousted PLI leader Montealegre, PLI vice-presidential
candidate Violeta Granera, or anti-canal peasant leader Francisca Ramírez
could step to the fore. The opposition may need a broad, multiclass coali-
tion—reminiscent of the one that the FSLN led against Somoza in 1979—
that would unite the (largely bourgeois) opposition parties, peasants an-
gered by the canal and other extractive development projects, indigenous
groups, and antigovernment women and young people.

Prospects are better, though still highly uncertain, in terms of exter-
nal pressure. Before the elections, Ortega agreed to an Organization of
American States (OAS) dialogue about the state of democracy in Ni-
caragua. OAS secretary-general Luis Almagro visited Nicaragua on 1
December 2016. A relaxation of policing during his visit enabled op-
position supporters to protest in Managua, but it is unclear what, if any,
concessions may result from OAS intercession. Civil society leaders
worry that any reopening of space for opposition parties may be coun-
terbalanced by a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.21

Pressure against the Ortega-Murillo regime could come from the

167Kai M. Thaler

United States, whose embassy strongly criticized the conduct of the
2016 elections. In response to Ortega’s crackdown before and during
the voting, conservatives in the U.S. Congress put forward the Nica-
ragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which would veto non-
humanitarian aid to Nicaragua from international financial institutions
until steps are taken to restore democratic political competitiveness.
Although Republican control of the White House and both chambers
of Congress might seem to augur a harder stand against Ortega, there
is reason for skepticism. The main supporters of NICA are Senators
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
All are members of the caucus in Congress that opposes Cuba’s Castro
regime, which suggests that the measure was motivated by erroneous
perceptions of Ortega’s Nicaragua as leftist. Nicaragua’s business elite
finds NICA worrisome, but the wealthy can always move their money.
Those who would suffer most from an aid cutoff would be the poor,
and it does not take much imagination to picture what a coup this could
be for Ortega’s propaganda operation. The United States would also
need to reckon with what confronting Ortega might do to Nicaraguan
cooperation in the tasks of limiting drug trafficking, criminal gangs,
and international migration.

More worrying for Ortega might be a general economic down-
turn. Commodities prices have dropped, Venezuela is in chaos under
Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro, and China’s weakened economy
threatens both future export prices and the canal project (the Chinese
billionaire who owns HKND has reportedly lost much of his wealth).
Although Vladimir Putin’s Russia has undertaken increased security co-
operation with Nicaragua, it lacks the economic muscle to substitute
for the U.S. market if Ortega’s relations with Washington deteriorate.
Economic contraction would press Ortega and Murillo to use privatized
funds for patronage or state programs in hopes of heading off popular

Another possible threat to the Ortega-Murillo hegemony could come
from a split in FSLN ranks, perhaps in conjunction with an economic
downturn. Murillo has bolstered her public profile and influence among
women, young people, and the poor by controlling ministries that pro-
vide goods and services as patronage, yet she still lacks respect among
significant segments of the FSLN, most importantly within the security
forces. If Ortega leaves the scene, the FSLN could plunge into a leader-
ship and legitimacy crisis, with results no one can predict.

Today, the FSLN is well-entrenched within state institutions, and the
opposition is feeble and fragmented. The country has a history of armed
challenges to power, but instances of resistance by force to the Ortega
regime have been isolated and sporadic. Absent an economic shock or
other crisis, prospects for democratization are dim. Yet Nicaraguan po-
litical culture is not predisposed to strongman rule: On the contrary,

168 Journal of Democracy

the 2016 abstention campaign and survey data indicate that support for
democracy is relatively strong.23 It remains to be seen whether the oppo-
sition can capitalize on external conditions and internal FSLN fractures
to force a democratic reopening, or whether an Ortega-Murillo dynasty
will endure.

Ortega has followed the path of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip
Erdo¢gan, Viktor Orbán, and other illiberal leaders who have moved
from electoral victory to strongman rule. Ortega, however, has resus-
citated a variety of authoritarianism—that of the right-wing personalist
caudillo—not seen in Latin America for decades, a worrying throwback
to darker times. Redemocratization will be a difficult task. Nicaraguans
should lead it, but they will need international help.


The author is grateful to interlocutors in Nicaragua, to the Ash Center and Weatherhead
Center for International Affairs at Harvard for research funding, and to Jorge Domínguez,
Mateo Jarquín, Steven Levitsky, Eric Mosinger, and workshop participants at Harvard and
MIT for helpful comments.

1. William M. LeoGrande, “Political Parties and Post-Revolutionary Politics in Nica-
ragua,” in Louis W. Goodman, William M. LeoGrande, and Johanna Mendelson Forman,
eds., Political Parties and Democracy in Central America (Boulder, Colo.: Westview,
1992), 198.

2. As Edmundo Jarquín points out, Ortega’s victory, unlike the rise of left-leaning
populists in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, did not result from a party-system collapse,
an economic crisis, or the emergence of a new social movement or coalition. Edmundo
Jarquín, “Introducción,” in Edmundo Jarquín, ed., El régimen de Ortega: ¿Una nueva
dictadura familiar en el continente? (Managua: PAVSA, 2016), 23.

3. There was potential in 2006 for a split on the left, but MRS candidate Herty Lewites,
a former FSLN leader, died during the campaign while he was polling close to Ortega.

4. See David Close and Kalowatie Deonandan, eds., Undoing Democracy: The Poli-
tics of Electoral Caudillismo (Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2004); David Close, Nicaragua:
Navigating the Politics of Democracy (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2016).

5. Leslie E. Anderson and Lawrence C. Dodd, “Nicaragua: Progress amid Regress?”
Journal of Democracy 20 (July 2009): 157.

6. Anderson and Dodd, “Progress amid Regress?”; José Antonio Peraza, “Colapso del
sistema electoral,” in Jarquín, ed., El régimen de Ortega, 124.

7. Carter Center, “Carter Center Statement on the Reappointment of Magistrates to
Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council,” 1 June 2014,

8. See Close, Nicaragua, ch. 7; Julio Icaza Gallard, “Fin del estado de derecho: los
principales reformas constitucionales y legislativas,” in Jarquín, ed., El régimen de Orte-
ga, 65–115.

9. “2012 Municipal Elections: Chronicle of an Outcome Foretold,” Envío, November

169Kai M. Thaler

10. José de Córdoba, “Nicaragua Revives Its Canal Dream,” Wall Street Journal, 13
June 2013,

11. Interview with Roberto Cajina, Managua, 3 July 2015.

12. Tim Johnson, “In Nicaragua, Fears of Dynastic Power as Ortegas Jointly Wield
Power,” McClatchy, 9 January 2014,

13. Nina Lakhani, “Nicaragua Suppresses Opposition to Ensure One-Party Election,
Critics Say,” Guardian, 26 June 2016,

14. Carlos Salinas, “Daniel Ortega asesta otro golpe al Parlamento y se hace con todo
el poder en Nicaragua,” El País, 30 July 2016,
cional/2016/07/29/america/1469811779_708844.html; “Not a Stone Will Be Left Stand-
ing…” Envío, August 2016,

15. “A New Move on the Game Board: The Voters’ Massive ‘NO!’” Envío, November

16. Victor Hugo Tinoco, however, argues that Ortega would have lost truly free elec-
tions, citing declining poll numbers, and it is unlikely that the FSLN would have main-
tained its legislative supermajority. See his “Nicaragua’s Electoral Farce Augurs a Conflict
with Whoever Wins in the US,” Envío, August 2016,

17. Icaza Gallard, “Fin del estado de derecho,” 101–102.

18. Enrique Sáenz, “La gestión económica: ¿Despilfarro de oportunidades?” in Jar-
quín, ed., El régimen Ortega, 240–43.

19. See Guillermo Rothschuh Villanueva, “Asedios a la libertad de expresión,” in Jar-
quín, ed., El régimen de Ortega, 186–208; IREX, Media Sustainability Index 2016: The
Development of Sustainable Independent Media in Nicaragua (Washington, D.C.: IREX,
2016), ;
and the reports of watchdog groups such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Bor-

20. See International Monetary Fund, Nicaragua, Staff Report for the 2013 Article IV
Consultation (Washington, D.C.: IMF, 2013); Sáenz, “La gestión económica”; Iván Oli-
vares, “La ‘alcancía’ de Albanisa,” Confidencial, 9 April 2016,
ni/la-alcancia-de-albanisa; Olivares, “Una pulpería de negocios,” Confidencial, 11 April
2016,; Olivares, “PDVSA dijo no al
‘negocio’ de Caruna,” Confidencial, 15 August 2016,

21. Interviews with individuals who requested to remain anonymous, Managua, No-
vember 2016.

22. Since Ortega took office in 2007, the Nicaraguan córdoba has lost about 60 percent
of its value against the U.S. dollar.

23. On support for personalism, see Forrest D. Colburn and Arturo Cruz S., “Personal-
ism and Populism in Nicaragua,” Journal of Democracy 23 (April 2012): 104–18. On sup-
port for democracy, see surveys conducted by the Latin American Public Opinion Project
(LAPOP) and Latinobarómetro.

Gangs in Central America

Updated August 29, 2016

Congressional Research Service


Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its main rival, the “18th Street” gang, continue to undermine

citizen security and subvert government authority in parts of Central America. Gang-related

violence has been particularly acute in El Salvador, Honduras, and urban areas in Guatemala,

contributing to some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Congress has maintained an

interest in the effects of gang-related crime and violence on governance, citizen security, and

investment in Central America. Congress has examined the role that gang-related violence has

played in fueling mixed migration flows, which have included asylum seekers, by families and

unaccompanied alien children (UAC) to the United States. Since FY2008, Congress has

appropriated funding for anti-gang efforts in Central America.

Central American governments have struggled to address the gang problem. From 2012 to 2014,

the government of El Salvador facilitated a historic—and risky—truce involving the country’s

largest gangs. The truce contributed to a temporary reduction in homicides but strengthened the

gangs. Since taking office in June 2014, President Salvador Sanchez Cerén has adopted

repression-oriented anti-gang policies similar those implemented in the mid-2000s, including

relying on the military to support anti-gang efforts. El Salvador’s attorney general is investigating

allegations of extrajudicial killings committed by police engaged in anti-gang efforts. Successive

Honduran governments have generally relied on suppression-oriented policies toward the gangs

as well, with some funding provided in recent years to support community-level prevention

programs. The Guatemalan government has generally relied on periodic law-enforcement

operations to round up suspected gang


U.S. agencies have engaged with Central American governments on gang issues for more than a

decade. In July 2007, an interagency committee announced the U.S. Strategy to Combat Criminal

Gangs from Central America and Mexico, which emphasized diplomacy, repatriation, law

enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention. Between FY2008 and FY2013, Congress

appropriated roughly $38 million in International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement

(INCLE) funds through a special line item for anti-gang efforts in Central America. Since

FY2013, approximately $10 million in Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)

funding has been assigned to continue those anti-gang initiatives. Significant additional support

has been provided through CARSI for violence-prevention efforts in communities affected by

gang violence, as well as for vetted police units working on transnational gang cases with U.S.

law enforcement. Recently, U.S. and Salvadoran officials have also targeted the financing of MS-

13, which the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as a

Transnational Criminal Organization subject to U.S. sanctions in October 2012, pursuant to

Executive Order (E.O.) 13581.

This report describes the gang problem in Central America, discusses country approaches to deal

with the gangs, and analyzes U.S. policy with respect to gangs in Central America. Congressional

oversight may focus on the efficacy of anti-gang efforts in Central America; the interaction

between U.S. domestic and international anti-gang policies, and the potential impact of U.S.

sanctions on law-enforcement efforts. See also CRS Report R41731, Central America Regional

Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress, and CRS Report R43702,

Unaccompanied Children from Central America: Foreign Policy Considerations.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service


Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1

Scope of the Gang Problem in Central America …………………………………………………………………… 2

Defining Gangs …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2
Transnational Gangs in Central America ………………………………………………………………………. 3
Gang Activities in Central America ……………………………………………………………………………… 5
Factors Exacerbating the Gang Problem in Central America ……………………………………………. 7

Legacies of War and Authoritarian Rule: Arms and Violence …………………………………….. 7
Poverty and a Lack of Educational and Employment Opportunities ……………………………. 8
Societal Stigmas …………………………………………………………………………………………………… 8
Prisons in Need of Reform …………………………………………………………………………………….. 8

U.S. Removals (Deportations) to Central America and the Gang Problem ………………………… 9

Country Anti-gang Efforts ………………………………………………………………………………………………. 10

Mano Dura (Heavy-Handed) Anti-gang Policies ………………………………………………………….. 10
El Salvador’s 2012 Gang Truce and Dissolution …………………………………………………………… 11
Military Involvement in Public Security and Human Rights ………………………………………….. 12
Approaches in Other Central American Countries ………………………………………………………… 13
Prospects for Country Prevention and Rehabilitation Efforts …………………………………………. 13

U.S. Policy ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 14

Congressional Interest and Appropriations ………………………………………………………………….. 14
Evolution of U.S. International Anti-gang Efforts ………………………………………………………… 15

State Department ………………………………………………………………………………………………… 16
U.S. Agency for International Development …………………………………………………………… 17
Department of Justice …………………………………………………………………………………………. 17
Department of Homeland Security ……………………………………………………………………….. 18
U.S. Treasury Department ……………………………………………………………………………………. 18

Possible Questions for Oversight ……………………………………………………………………………….. 19


Figure 1. Map of Central America ……………………………………………………………………………………… 2

Figure 2. Estimated Gang Membership in the Northern Triangle of

Central America, 2012 …………………………………………………………………………………………………. 4

Figure 3. Homicide Rates in the Northern Triangle: 2004-2015 …………………………………………….. 6


Table 1. U.S. Deportations to Top Receiving Countries: FY2013-FY2015 ……………………………… 9

Table 2. Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) Funding:

FY2008-FY2017 ………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 15


Author Information ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 20

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Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 1

Congress has expressed ongoing concern about the high rate of violent crimes committed by drug

traffickers, organized criminal groups, and gangs in Central America, particularly in the “northern

triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (see Figure 1).1 Central American

governments, the media, and some analysts have attributed a significant proportion of homicides

to maras (gangs), many of which have ties to the United States. U.S. concerns about gangs are

due in part to the role gangs have played in the violence, extortion, and forced recruitment that

has fueled internal displacement, as well as the record-level emigration of unaccompanied alien

children (UAC) and families to the United States.2 The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

(UNHCR) has asserted that gang violence is contributing to a “refugee-like” situation in the

northern triangle.3 Governments maintain that recent migration has been due to a number of

factors and that their efforts are reducing violence and illegal emigration.4

In recent years, Congress has considered what level of U.S. assistance is most appropriate to help

Central American countries combat gang activity and what types of programs are most effective

in that effort. Members of Congress have also taken an interest in the impact on the gang problem

of U.S. deportations of individuals with criminal records to Central America, as well as the

evolving relationship between Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and the

gangs. Congress is currently examining the degree to which governments in the region are taking

steps to address gangs in a way that does not cause human rights abuses, as required by

conditions included in the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 114-113).5

This report describes the gang problem in Central America, discusses country approaches to deal

with the gangs, and analyzes U.S. policy with respect to gangs in Central America. It concludes

with possible questions for oversight that Congress may consider.

1 The Central American countries include Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and

Panama. This report focuses on the “northern triangle” countries of Central America, where the gang problem has been

most acute: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The report refers to the other countries and governments in the

region periodically for comparative purposes. For more information, see CRS Report R41731, Central America

Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress,

by Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke.

2 Sarnata Reynolds, “It’s a Suicide Act to Leave or Stay”: Internal Displacement in El Salvador,” Refugees

International, July 30, 2015; Muzaffar Chishti and Faye Hipsman, Increased Central American Migration to the United

States May Prove an Enduring Phenomenon, Migration Policy Institute (MPI), February 18,


3 U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “U.S. Announcement on Central America Refugees Highlights

Seriousness of Situation,” press release, January 14, 2016; UNHCR, Children on the Run, March 2014; UNHCR,

Women on the Run, October 2015. In 2014, the U.S. government established an in-country processing program for

individuals in each of the northern triangle countries seeking asylum or parole who have parents lawfully present in the

United States; the program was expanded in July 2016. See U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “U.S.

Expands Initiatives to Address Migration Challenges,” July 26, 2016.

4 In some communities in Honduras, violence has been reduced with support from U.S.-funded programs. See Sonia

Nazario, “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth got a Little bit Safer,” New York Times, August 11, 2016. At a

national level, the extent and reasons behind violence reduction are debatable. Mimi Yagoub, “What’s Behind

Honduras’ 30% Drop in Murder Rates?” Insight Crime, February 19, 2016; E. Eduardo Castillo and Marcos Aleman,

“El Salvador, Deadliest Nation in 2015, Sees Lull in Violence,” AP, July 3, 2016.

5 CRS In Focus IF10371, U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America: Background and FY2017 Budget Request,

by Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 2

Figure 1. Map of Central America

Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Note: The “northern triangle” countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) are pictured in orange.

Scope of the Gang Problem in Central America

Defining Gangs

Experts have long debated the formal definition of the term gang and the types of individuals that

should be considered gang members. Generally, experts agree that most gangs have a name and

some sense of identity, which can sometimes be indicated by symbols such as clothing, graffiti,

colors, and hand signs that are unique to the group. Gangs are thought to be composed of

members ranging in age from 12 to 24, but some gang members are older adults and others are

younger, often forcibly recruited.6 These definitions are evolving. According to the U.S. National

Gang Center, group criminality is the most important factor used to identify gang-related activity

6 Frank de Waegh, Unwilling Participants: The Coercion of Youth into Violent Criminal Groups in Central America’s

Northern Triangle, Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, 2015. Hereinafter de Waegh, 2015.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 3

in the United States, followed by displaying gang symbols.7 Gangs may be involved in criminal

activities ranging from graffiti, vandalism, petty theft, robbery, extortion, and assaults to more

serious criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, rape, and murder.

When referring to gangs in Central America, some studies use the terms pandillas and maras

interchangeably, whereas others distinguish between the two.8 Studies that distinguish between

the two types of Central American gangs generally define pandillas as localized groups that have

long been present in the region and maras as a more recent phenomenon with transnational roots.

For a variety of reasons discussed below, pandillas are more prevalent in Nicaragua, whereas

maras are dominant in the northern triangle.9

Transnational Gangs in Central America

The major gangs operating in Central America with ties to the United States are the “18th Street”

gang (also known as M-18), and its main rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).10 The 18th Street

gang was formed in the 1960s by Mexican youth who were not accepted into existing Hispanic

gangs in the Rampart section of Los Angeles. It was the first Hispanic gang to accept members

from all races and to recruit members from other states. MS-13 was created during the 1980s by

Salvadorans in Los Angeles who had fled the country’s civil conflict. Both gangs later expanded

their operations to Central America but remain active in the United States. According to U.S.

estimates by the Department of Justice in 2015, the 18th Street gang is reportedly active in 20

states, whereas the MS-13 is present in 46 states and the District of Columbia.11

The expansion of MS-13 and 18th Street presence in Central America accelerated after the United

States began deporting illegal immigrants, many with criminal convictions, back to the northern

triangle region after the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility

Act (IIRIRA; P.L. 104-208) of 1996.12 Many contend that gang deportees “exported” a Los

Angeles gang culture to Central America (where local gangs were already present). Gangs have

recruited new members from among vulnerable youth in poor neighborhoods and in prisons;

forcible recruitment is common.13 Studies have shown that, as happened in the United States,

gang leaders in Central America have used prisons to increase discipline and cohesion among

their ranks.

Estimates of gang membership in Central America vary, with several widely cited estimates

published in 2012. At that time, State Department officials estimated that there were roughly

85,000 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members in northern triangle countries.14 In contrast, the U.N.

7 See U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), National Gang Center, National Youth Gang Survey Analysis, at

8 See, for example, Demoscopia S.A., Maras y Pandillas: Comunidad y Policía en Centroamérica, October 2007, as

opposed to Dennis Rodgers et al., “Gangs of Central America: Causes, Costs, and Interventions,” Small Arms Survey

Occasional Paper 23, May 2009.

9 Roberto Valencia, “Barrio Jorge Dimitrov,” El Faro, October 10, 2011.

10 James C. Howell, The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations, (Lanham,

MD.: Lexington Books, 2015); Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America, eds. Thomas Bruneau, Lucía

Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011).

11 DOJ, Organized Crime and Gang Section, About Violent Gangs, Criminal Street Gangs, May 12, 2015; DOJ, U.S.

Attorney’s Office, District of Massachusetts, “Fifty-Six MS-13 Members Indicted,” press release, January 29, 2016.

12 The Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRIRA; P.L. 104-208) expanded the categories of

illegal immigrants subject to deportation and made it more difficult for immigrants to get relief from removal.

13 de Waegh, 2015.

14 U.S. Department of State, “Gangs, Youth, and Drugs–Breaking the Cycle of Violence,” Remarks by William R.

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Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 4

Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated total MS-13 and M-18 membership in the region

at 54,000 (see Figure 2 below).15 According to UNODC, there were roughly 20,000 gang

members in El Salvador; 22,000 in Guatemala; and 12,000 in Honduras. El Salvador had the

highest concentration of gang members, with some 323 gang members for every 100,000 citizens,

double the level of Guatemala and Honduras. In comparison, in 2007, UNODC cited total gang

membership of some 64,500, with country membership totals of 10,500 in El Salvador; 14,000 in

Guatemala; and 36,000 in Honduras.16

Figure 2. Estimated Gang Membership in the Northern Triangle of

Central America, 2012

Source: U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the

Caribbean: a Threat Assessment, September 2012.

Nicaragua has a significant presence of local gangs, but comparatively few MS-13 and M-18

members. Many attribute this in part to the strength of social networks and community policing

programs established by the Sandinistas during the 1980s.17 Nicaragua also has received far fewer

deportees from the United States than the northern triangle countries. Costa Rica, Panama, and

Belize also have gangs, although most of the gangs in those countries are more often described as

pandillas than maras.

In recent years, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama have reported some MS-13 and M-18

presence in their countries.18 The increased presence in these countries could be occurring

because of deliberate expansion efforts made by the gangs or because of gang members fleeing

from rival gangs, or it could be a result of tough gang policies in countries such as El Salvador

Brownfield, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, at the Institute of the

Americas, press release, October 1, 2012.

15 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean:

a Threat Assessment, September 2012.

16 UNODC, Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire, May 2007.

17 Rodgers et al., 2009, op. cit; Valencia, op. cit.

18 Mike LaSusa, “Are Mara Salvatrucha Gangs Expanding in Costa Rica?,” Insight Crime, April 8, 2016; Martha Celia

Hernandez, “How MS13 and Barrio 18 are Extending Their Reach to Nicaragua,” Insight Crime, August 28, 2014.













Guatemala Honduras El Salvador

M-18 MS-13

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 5

driving gang members into neighboring countries. In April 2016, Panamanian police captured

MS-13 members and deported them to El Salvador.19

Gang Activities in Central America

Although MS-13 and M-18 began as loosely structured street gangs, some evidence suggests that

they have become more organized and sophisticated in some countries and that some clicas

(cliques) may coordinate with cliques in other countries.20 By 2008, U.S. law enforcement had

found evidence suggesting that some MS-13 leaders jailed in El Salvador were ordering

retaliatory assassinations of individuals in the Washington, DC, metro area, as well as designing

plans to unify their cliques with those in the United States.21 More recent investigations have

shown evidence of MS-13 leaders seeking to buy high-powered firearms in Mexico and

Guatemala.22 Still, the term transnational criminal organization, or TCO, might be misleading

when used to describe the maras across the region. Some researchers contend that the Central

American gangs’ primary focus continues to be on local issues, such as dominating a particular

extortion racket or drug distribution area.23

The northern triangle countries have among the highest homicide rates in the world (see Figure

3). Some Central American officials have blamed gangs for most of the homicides committed in

their countries. Gang-related murders occur when gangs discipline their members or punish those

who attempt to leave, dispute territory, confront law enforcement and their families, and punish

those who fail to comply with their orders. Gangs have also targeted witnesses to crimes.24

Gang experts have argued that, although gang members may be more visible than other criminals,

violence perpetrated by gangs is part of a broader spectrum of violence in Central America. Child

abuse and spousal rape are major problems in the three northern triangle countries. All three

countries have among the highest rates of femicide (killing of women) in the world.25 El Salvador

and Guatemala also have the highest proportion of homicide victims under the age of 20.26

Moreover, transnational criminal organizations, smugglers, and other violent groups are also


The decline in homicides that occurred after the Salvadoran government facilitated a gang truce

in March 2012 lends evidence to the assertion that gangs are responsible for a significant

19 Antonio Pérez, “Director de la Policía Confirma Presencia de Maras en Panamá,” Panamá América, April 4, 2016.

20 Douglas Farah and Pamela Phillips Lum, Central American Gangs and Transnational Criminal Organizations: the

Changing Relationships in a Time of Turmoil, International Assessment and Strategy Center, 2013. Hereinafter Farah

and Lum, 2013.

21 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Regional Gang Initiative:

Assessments and Plan of Action, July 1, 2008.

22 Mike LaSusa, “El Salvador’s MS13 Gang Sought Big Guns in Mexico, Guatemala,” Insight Crime, August 12, 2016.

23 Insight Crime and Associación para una Sociedad Más Justa, Gangs in Honduras, November 20, 2015.

24 See, for example, Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo, and Lisa Haugaard, El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way

Out, Center for International Policy and Latin America Working Group, August 2016.

25 Small Arms Survey, Femicide: A Global Problem, Research Note 14, February 2012.

26 U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Hidden in Plain Sight: a Statistical Analysis of Violence Against Children,

September 2014.

27 Steve Dudley, Briefing on Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime, and Violence in Central America’s Northern

Triangle, Washington DC, July 6, 2016; International Crisis Group (ICG), Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central

American Migration, Latin America Report No. 57, July 28, 2016. Hereinafter ICG, July 2016.

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percentage of violence in that country.28 Some also maintain that recent reductions in homicides

in El Salvador may be due more to a nonaggression pact among the gangs than to the

“extraordinary measures” adopted by the government in March 2016.29 Although gangs appear to

be responsible for a significant percentage of murders in urban areas of Honduras and Guatemala,

homicide rates also have been elevated in border regions and places where varying combinations

of local groups transporting drugs, Mexican crime groups, and crime families are active.30

Figure 3. Homicide Rates in the Northern Triangle: 2004-2015

(homicides per 100,000 inhabitants)

Source: Washington Office on Latin America, Five Facts About Migration From Central America’s Northern Triangle,

January 15, 2016.

Women and children are often targets of gang violence in Central America. Gang initiations for

men and women differ. Whereas men are subject to a beating, women are often forced to have sex

with various members of the gang.31 After joining a gang, women are expected to commit crimes

(such as serving as drug mules or carrying contraband into prisons), sometimes dressed like men,

but also to perform household duties, such as cooking and cleaning for the group. Female gang

members are expected to tolerate infidelity from their partners, but women may be murdered if

they are unfaithful.32 Non-gang affiliated women and girls have been murdered as a result of turf

battles, jealousy, and revenge. Those who have refused to help a gang or reported a crime are

particularly vulnerable, as are those who are related to or have collaborated with the police.33

28 José Miguel Cruz, The Political Workings of the Funes Administration’s Gang Truce in El Salvador, Woodrow

Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2013.

29 Since March 2016, the Salvadoran government has sent mid-level gang leaders to more secure facilities, blocked

phone signals near jails, deployed military reservists, and secured legislative approval of loans for public security.

Carlos Martinez, “Pandillas Caminan Hacia una Frente Común Ante Medidas Extraordinarias,” El Faro, July 5, 2016.

30 Dudley, op cit. International Crisis Group, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, June 4, 2014.

31Interpeace Regional Office for Latin America, Violentas y Violentadas Relaciones de Género en las Maras

Salvatrucha y Barrio 18 del Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica, Guatemala, May 15, 2013.

32 Ibid.

33 Kelly McEvers and Jasmine Garsd, “The Surreal Reasons Girls Are Disappearing In El Salvador: #15Girls,” NPR,

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Gangs also engage in sex trafficking involving women and children, particularly in Honduras and

in Guatemala City.34 Threats and harassment by gangs have led thousands of youth to abandon

school, including some 39,000 in El Salvador in 2015.35

Gangs have been involved in a broad array of other criminal activities, as well. Those activities

include extortion; money laundering; and drug, auto, and weapons smuggling. Gangs have

increasingly been involved in extortions of residents, bus drivers, and business owners in major

cities throughout the region. Failure to pay often results in harassment or violent reprisals. In

2014, some 179 bus, minibus, and taxi drivers were assassinated in Guatemala.36 In July 2015, the

MS-13 and 18th Street gangs in El Salvador threatened public transportation operators to go on

strike or face reprisals. The operators complied with the gangs’ threats, and the country’s

transport system remained paralyzed for three days. The Honduran government cracked down on

the MS-13 gang’s finances in February 2016 in an operation that seized more than $1 million and

several properties and businesses operated by the gang. In July 2016, the Salvadoran government

arrested more than 70 people who had allegedly laundered the gang’s money through motels,

brothels, and other businesses.37

Although some studies maintain that ties between Central American gangs and other organized

criminal groups have increased, other studies have downplayed the connections.38 Some gangs

engage in local drug distribution, but gangs generally do not have a role in transnational drug

trafficking.39 A gang’s role in the drug trade depends on the country and area in which it operates.

Some clicas act as facilitators by, for example, allowing a transnational criminal organization to

land drug shipments on a clandestine airstrip in their territory in exchange for payment. MS-13

members reportedly have been contracted on an ad-hoc basis by Mexico’s warring criminal

organizations to carry out revenge killings.40

Factors Exacerbating the Gang Problem in Central America

Legacies of War and Authoritarian Rule: Arms and Violence

The northern triangle countries have long histories of armed conflict and political repression. A

legacy of conflict and authoritarian rule has inhibited the development of democratic institutions

and the rule of law. Protracted armed conflicts also contributed to widespread proliferation of

illicit firearms, as well as a tendency to resort to violence as a means of settling disputes.41 Some

October 5, 2015; Óscar Martinez, “El Salvador es un buen lugar para matar,” El Faro, May 9, 2016; Christopher

Sherman, “Gangs Declare War on Police as El Salvador Violence Rages,” AP, April 13, 2016.

34 “Niñas y Niños en Honduras son Sometidos a una Esclavitud Moderna,” El Heraldo, October 11, 2015; UNICEF and

the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation

Purposes in Guatemala, 2016.

35 Jaimi López, “Deserción Escolar por Violencia se ha Triplicado en Últimos Dos Años,”, July 19,


36 Fred Rivera, “Persisten Acosos Contra Transportistas,” El Quetzalteco, February 17, 2015.

37 Sarah Esther Maslin, “El Salvador says a Brutal Gang Laundered Money Through Motels, Brothels, and Taxis,”

Washington Post, July 29, 2016.

38 Farah and Lum, 2013, asserts that linkages are increasing. For a contrasting view, see Juan Carlos Garzon,

“Rethinking the El Salvador Mara- Drug Trafficking Relationship,” Insight Crime, April 3, 2014.

39 Efren Lemus, “From Extortion to Investment: The Making of Barrio 18, Inc.,” Insight Crime, October 2, 2015;

Carlos Garcia, “6 Common Misconceptions About the MS13 Street Gang,” Insight Crime, February 25, 2016.

40 “MS-13,” Insight Crime, November 21, 2013.

41 UNODC, Firearms Within Central America, 2012; Tani Marilena Adams, Chronic Violence and its Reproduction:

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80% of homicides in Honduras between 2008 and 2015 involved the use of a firearm, the vast

majority of which were unlicensed.42 Many current gang leaders grew up witnessing extreme

violence in their homes and communities. Some were displaced to cities in the United States or

neighboring countries (such as Costa Rica), whereas others were left behind by parents who died

or fled during the conflict.

Poverty and a Lack of Educational and Employment Opportunities

In addition to war, authoritarian rule, and emigration, the social fabric in the northern triangle

countries has been stressed by economic factors such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment,

with few opportunities for growing youth populations. According to the World Bank, poverty is

acute in Honduras, where 63% of people live in poverty, and in Guatemala, where 59% of people

live in poverty. All three northern triangle countries are also characterized by inequality, with

income disparities exacerbating the social exclusion of ethnic minorities and gender


Poverty and inequality are reinforced by the lack of social mobility and persistent youth

unemployment and underemployment.43 In 2010, more than 25% of youth aged 15-24 in El

Salvador and Honduras neither worked nor studied.44 According to data from the Inter-American

Development Bank, fewer than 45% of youth outside the highest income quintile graduate high

school in those countries. High-school graduation rates are even lower in Guatemala, particularly

among indigenous groups. Gangs target unemployed youth and, in the absence of family or

community support, many of these youth have turned to gangs for social support, a source of

livelihood, and protection.45

Societal Stigmas

Societal stigmas against gangs and gang deportees from the United States have made the process

of leaving a gang extremely difficult. Many organizations that work with former gang members,

particularly those with criminal records, say that offender reentry is a major problem. Ex-gang

members report that employers are often unwilling to hire them. Tattooed former gang members,

especially returning deportees from the United States who are often native English speakers, have

had the most difficulty finding gainful employment. Some gang members have gone through

complete tattoo removal, a long and expensive process, to better integrate into society.

Prisons in Need of Reform

The implementation of aggressive anti-gang roundups has overwhelmed prisons in Central

America. Prison conditions in the region are generally harsh, with severe overcrowding,

inadequate sanitation, and staffing shortages. Many facilities that were already overpopulated

have been filled with thousands of suspected gang members, many of whom have yet to be

convicted of any crimes. In El Salvador, some 31,148 inmates (including 13,868 current or

Perverse Trends in Social Relations, Citizenship, and Democracy in Latin America, Woodrow Wilson International

Center for Scholars, March 2012.

42 David Gagne, “80% of Homicides in Honduras Result of Gun Violence: Report,” Insight Crime, July 7, 2016.

43 Marc Hanson, Migration, U.S. Assistance, and Youth Opportunities in Central America, Washington Office on Latin

America (WOLA), February 2016.

44 Rafael de Hoyos, Halsey Rogers, and Miguel Székely, Out of School and Out of Work Risk and Opportunities for

Latin America’s Ninis, World Bank, Washington DC, 2016.

45 Douglas Farah, “Central America’s Gangs Are All Grown Up,” Foreign Policy, January 19, 2016.

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former gang members) were being held in prisons designed to hold a maximum of 10,035 people

in late 2015. In Guatemala at about the same time, 19,972 people were being held in facilities

with a capacity of 6,742.46

Gangs are often able to carry out criminal activities from behind bars, sometimes with assistance

from corrupt prison officials. As discussed above, some assess that prison conditions have helped

gangs to become larger, better organized, and more cohesive. Some observers have described

prisons as “finishing schools” where, rather than being rehabilitated, first-time offenders often

deepen their involvement in illicit gang activities.47

U.S. Removals (Deportations) to Central America and the

Gang Problem

Policymakers in Central America have expressed ongoing concerns that U.S. deportations of

individuals with criminal records are exacerbating the gang and gang-related citizen security

problems in the region. For more than a decade, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have

received the highest numbers of U.S. deportees (after Mexico). Obama Administration officials

have repeatedly asserted that a larger proportion of recent deportees were removed on criminal

grounds, but a breakdown of criminal versus noncriminal deportations is not publicly available at

a country level.

Table 1. U.S. Deportations to Top Receiving Countries: FY2013-FY2015

Country FY2013 FY2014 FY2015

Mexico 241,493 176,968 146,132

Honduras 37,049 40,695 20,309

Guatemala 47,769 54,423 33,249

El Salvador 21,602 27,180 21,920

Dominican Republic 2,462 2,130 1,946

Source: Prepared by CRS with information provided by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and

Customs Enforcement, Office of Enforcement and Removal. Figures include “removals” (deportations) but not

voluntary departures (returns).

Notes: Criminal deportees have been convicted of a crime in the United States that makes one removable (i.e.,

eligible for deportation) under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-236). Not all individuals who

have been deported on criminal grounds are gang members or violent criminals. Low-level drug convictions and

some nonviolent offenses may result in a removal on criminal grounds. Noncriminal deportees have been

removed because of a status violation (e.g., being in the country illegally or working without authorization).

Since the mid-2000s, Central American officials had been asking the U.S. government to consider

providing a complete criminal history for each individual who has been deported on criminal

grounds, including whether or not he or she is a member of a gang. Although U.S. Immigration

and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not provide a complete criminal record for deportees, it

may provide some information regarding an individual’s criminal history when specifying why

the individual was removed from the United States. ICE does not indicate gang affiliation unless

gang affiliation is the primary reason why the individual is being deported. However, in January

2014, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed an

46 U.S. Department of State, 2015 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador, April 2016.

47 T. W. Ward, Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnography of A Salvadoran Street Gang (Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2012).

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agreement to expand a Criminal History Information Sharing (CHIS) program. Honduras,

Guatemala, El Salvador participate in CHIS.

The types of support services provided to deportees returning from the United States and Mexico

to northern triangle countries vary but are generally limited in size and scope.48 Until recently, the

few shelters and programs that existed to receive and reintegrate deportees in Central America

tended to be funded and administered by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Catholic

Church, or the International Organization for Migration. Guatemala appears to provide the most

deportee assistance upon arrival, but all three countries have limited resources for reintegration

services and for tracking deportees once they return.49

Country Anti-gang Efforts
Country efforts to deal with gangs vary. In general, governments in the northern triangle have

adopted more aggressive law-enforcement approaches than other Central American countries.

Tough anti-gang approaches carried out in the mid-2000s failed to stave off rising crime rates in

the region and resulted in negative unintended consequences. El Salvador’s ill-managed truce

(see “El Salvador’s 2012 Gang Truce and Dissolution,” below) has discouraged governments

from negotiating with the gangs. Experts have urged governments to move away from

enforcement-only policies toward “second-generation” anti-gang programs similar to the types of

efforts that have been employed in U.S. cities such as Boston and Los Angeles. These approaches

involve prevention of violence, intervention to prevent retaliatory violence, enforcement, and

reentry of rehabilitated gang members.

Regional cooperation to address gang challenges is occurring among security and defense

ministers, as well as attorney generals.50 Prosecutors from the three northern triangle countries

have signed an agreement pledging to work together to prosecute gangs. The three presidents

have signed an agreement to create a regional task force to address the gangs that will facilitate

intelligence sharing and extraditions among the three countries, among other aims.51

Mano Dura (Heavy-Handed) Anti-gang Policies

Mano dura is a term used to describe the type of anti-gang policies initially put in place in El

Salvador, Honduras, and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala in response to popular demands and media

pressure for these governments to “do something” about an escalation in gang-related crime.

Mano dura approaches have typically involved incarcerating large numbers of youth (often those

with visible tattoos) for illicit association and increasing sentences for gang membership and

gang-related crimes. A Mano dura law passed by El Salvador’s Congress in 2003 was

subsequently declared unconstitutional but was followed by a super mano dura package of anti-

gang reforms in July 2004. These reforms enhanced police power to search and arrest suspected

gang members and stiffened penalties for convicted gang members. Similarly, in July 2003,

Honduras enacted a penal code amendment that made maras illegal and established sentences of

up to 12 years in prison for gang membership. Changes in legislation were accompanied by the

48 Victoria Rietig and Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas, Stopping the Revolving Door: Reception and Reintegration

Services for Central American Deportees, MPI, December 2015.

49 ICG, July 2016.

50 “‘Northern Triangle’ Countries Boost Security Cooperation,” Latin News Daily, August 15, 2016.

51 “Central America Leaders Agree on Joint Force to Fight Gangs,” AP, August 23, 2016.

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increasing use of joint military and police patrols to arrest gang suspects. Guatemala introduced

similar legislation in 2003, but the legislation was not enacted.52

Mano dura reforms initially proved to be a way for Central American leaders to show that they

were getting tough on gangs and crime, despite objections from human rights groups about the

leaders’ infringements on civil liberties and human rights abuses (including cases of torture and

extrajudicial killings of gang suspects). Early public reactions to the tough anti-gang reforms

were positive, supported by media coverage demonizing the activities of tattooed youth gang

members. Mano dura policies enabled police to arrest large numbers of suspected gang members,

including some 14,000 youth in El Salvador between mid-2004 and late 2005. In addition,

according to Salvadoran officials, even though many suspects were eventually released, gang

detainees provided law-enforcement officials with intelligence information.53

Despite the early results of mano dura policies, long-term reduction of gangs and related crime

proved to be fleeting. Most youth arrested under mano dura provisions were subsequently

released for lack of evidence that they committed any crime. Some youth who were wrongly

arrested for gang involvement joined gangs while in prison. Gang roundups exacerbated prison

overcrowding, and intergang violence within the prisons resulted in inmate deaths. Credible

reports assert that extrajudicial youth killings by vigilante groups have continued since mano

dura was implemented. In response to mano dura, gangs have also changed their behavior to

avoid detection.

El Salvador’s 2012 Gang Truce and Dissolution

Upon taking office in 2009, then-Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes initially sought to move

away from mano dura and toward a focus on crime prevention. Two years into his term, crime

rates remained at elevated levels and people became frustrated. Funes moved his minister of

defense, David Munguía Payés, a retired general, to head the Ministry of Justice and Public

Security. With Munguía Payés’s backing, a Catholic bishop and a former legislator (who was the

minister’s aid in the Defense Ministry) brokered a secret truce between the MS-13 and 18th Street

gangs. In March 2012, Munguía Payés agreed to transfer high-ranking gang leaders serving time

in maximum-security prison to less secure prisons to facilitate negotiations. Munguía Payés

denied his role in facilitating the truce until September 2012.54

Between the time the prison transfers took place and May 2013 (when Munguía Payés was

removed from his post for unrelated reasons), the Salvadoran government reported that homicide

rates dramatically declined. Gang leaders pledged not to forcibly recruit children into their ranks

or to perpetrate violence against women. Gang leaders also turned in small amounts of weapons

and offered to engage in broader negotiations. The initial apparent success of the Salvadoran truce

led the Honduran government to consider a similar initiative.

Although some, including officials from the Organization of American States, praised the truce,

many others expressed skepticism, maintaining that disappearances increased after the truce took

effect and gangs garnered media attention and political power.55 Gangs continued to conduct

52 Instead, the Guatemalan government has launched periodic law-enforcement operations to round up suspected gang


53 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), Regional Gang

Initiative Assessments and Plan of Action, July 1, 2008.

54 Carlos Martínez and Jose Luis Sanz, “The New Truth About the Gang Truce,” Insight Crime, September 14, 2012.

55 Organization of American States (OAS), “OAS Secretary General Highlights Results from the First Year of Gang

Truce in El Salvador,” press release, March 11, 2013; Douglas Farah, “Central America’s Gangs Are All Grown Up,”

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illicit activities using cell phones in the prisons and refused to give up control over their territories

or to stop extortion. El Salvador’s attorney general is investigating several officials who were

involved in facilitating the truce for allegedly providing as much as $25 million to gang leaders

and their affiliates.56

The truce began to unravel after then-president Funes withdrew support for the truce mediators

and reduced communication between imprisoned gang leaders and gang members in the streets in

mid-2013. By April 2014, average murder rates had risen to some nine murders per day; gang

attacks on police also occurred with increasing frequency. These trends worsened considerably in

2015, as El Salvador posted the world’s highest homicide rate.

Church leaders have voiced support for renewed dialogue with gang members; however, the

Sánchez Cerén administration opposes negotiating with the gangs—directly or indirectly. Gang-

police confrontations escalated after the government returned gang leaders involved in the truce

to maximum-security prisons in early 2015. El Salvador’s attorney general has recently begun

investigating allegations of police involvement in extrajudicial killings that took place during an

apparent massacre in March 2015.57 Until mid-2016, the Salvadoran government had struggled to

quell violence among the gangs, which became more fragmented and powerful after the truce.58

Military Involvement in Public Security and Human Rights

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have deployed thousands of military troops to help their

often underpaid and poorly equipped police forces carry out public security functions, without

clearly defining when those deployments might end. Upon taking office in January 2014,

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández ordered the military to conduct intensive patrols of

high-crime neighborhoods in the capital with the police.59 Among the units involved in the

ongoing operation are two hybrid forces that Hernández helped to establish while he was the head

of the Honduran Congress: the military police force, or PMOP (Policía Militar de Orden

Público), which is under the control of the Ministry of Defense, and a military-trained police unit

under the control of the police, the TIGRES (Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta

Especial de Seguridad). In May 2015, the Salvadoran government created three battalions to help

police in anti-gang efforts; at that time, some 7,000 soldiers were already involved in public

security efforts.60 In March 2016, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén deployed hundreds of

military reservists.61 Since taking office in January, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has

extended the mandate of some 4,500 soldiers organized in nine groups that were involved in

domestic security efforts during the previous government.62

Foreign Policy, January 19, 2016.

56 Munguía Payés has denied any involvement in illicit payments to the gangs and remains in his post as El Salvador’s

minister of defense even though he has been interrogated by the attorney general’s office. Héctor Silva Ávalos and

Bryan Avelar, “Case Against El Salvador’s MS13 Reveals State Role in Gang’s Growth,” Insight Crime, August 3,


57 Other recent cases of extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by police have been documented but not yet

investigated. Adriana Beltrán and Carolyn Scorpio, “Turning a Blind Eye to Police Abuse and Extrajudicial

Executions?” WOLA, August 16, 2016.

58 “El Salvador, Deadliest Nation in 2015, Sees Lull in Violence,” AP, July 3, 2016.

59 CRS Report RL34027, Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations, by Peter J. Meyer.

60 Loren Riesenfeld, “El Salvador to Deploy Special Forces to Combat Gangs,” Insight Crime, May 8, 2015.

61 Evan Ellis, “The New Offensive Against Gangs in El Salvador,” Latin America Goes Global, May 2, 2016.

62 “Guatemala: Military to Continue Civilian Security Tasks,” Latin News Security & Strategy Review, July 2016.

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The involvement of the military in domestic security has raised concerns regarding human rights

in these countries. As in other parts of Latin America, deploying the military into the streets can

be politically popular, but doing so usually fails to produce sustainable improvements in security

conditions and often leads to human rights violations. According to the State Department’s

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, there were credible reports of security forces’

involvement in unlawful killings in all three countries in 2015. The Office of the Ombudsman for

Human Rights in El Salvador reported that from June 2014 to May 2015 it received 2,202

complaints of human rights violations, 92% of which were allegedly committed by the police

and/or the military.

Approaches in Other Central American Countries

Although their efforts have received considerably less international attention than those of El

Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, other Central American countries have developed a variety

of programs to deal with their gang problems. In Panama, President Juan Carlos Varela started an

initiative in 2014 called Barrios Seguros (Safe Streets), where gang members willing to abandon

criminality and be reintegrated into society are offered amnesty and job training to reduce gang

violence.63 The initiative is currently active in seven provinces and has served more than 4,100


Nicaragua has adopted a national youth crime prevention strategy that, at least on an official

level, includes the active involvement of the police in preventive and rehabilitative efforts and

focuses on family, school, and community interventions. With support from other countries and

NGOs, the Nicaraguan National Police’s Juvenile Affairs Division runs at least two anti-gang

activities a month. The Ministry of the Interior is administering a five-year program, which is

supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, to target at-risk youth in 11 different


Prospects for Country Prevention and Rehabilitation Efforts

Central American leaders, including those from the northern triangle countries, appear to have

moved, at least on a rhetorical level, toward more comprehensive anti-gang approaches than

during the mano dura era of the mid-2000s. All of the Central American countries have created

institutional bodies to design and coordinate crime-prevention strategies and have units within

their national police forces engaged in prevention efforts. Prevention is also a key component of

the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle plan launched in 2014 by all three countries

for which the governments are seeking donor support to complement their budget outlays.65

Despite this rhetorical shift, government-sponsored gang prevention programs in the northern

triangle have thus far tended to be relatively small scale, ad hoc, and underfunded. Of the $318.2

million collected through Honduras’ security tax between 2012 and July 2016, just 6% was

allocated to prevention programs. El Salvador’s security plan, El Salvador Seguro (Secure El

Salvador), prioritizes prevention, but the government lacks the funding to implement the

programs the plan proposes and must obtain legislative approval for multilateral loans to support

63 David Gagne, “Panamá Ofrece Capacitación Laboral y Amnistía a Pandilleros,” InSight Crime, November 29, at

Panamá ofrece capacitación laboral y amnistía a pandilleros

64 Erika Edith Quiñones, “Someterán a Revisión el Programa Barrios Seguros,” Panamá América, January 24, 2016.

65 For more information on the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, see the text of the plan at

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the plan. The Salvadoran Congress has been reluctant to approve additional debt unless the debt is

primarily aimed at supporting the military and police.

Governments have been even less involved in sponsoring rehabilitation programs for individuals

seeking to leave gangs, with most reintegration programs funded by church groups or NGOs.

Resource constraints and a reluctance to work with gang members have thus far limited such anti-

gang programs. Nevertheless, pilot projects based on experiences in cities in the United States,

Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia have had some nascent success in Honduras.66 Those projects have

involved individual and family therapy for youth deemed most at risk for joining gangs,

intervention efforts to prevent retaliatory violence, and rehabilitation programs for those seeking

to leave gangs and for nonviolent offenders in prisons. 67

U.S. Policy
In the mid-2000s, U.S. officials and Members of Congress expressed serious concerns about

gangs and violence in Central America and their spillover effects on the United States. For several

years, however, concerns about gang-related violence were overshadowed by broader concerns

about drug trafficking and organized crime in Central America, particularly after Mexico’s

aggressive anticrime efforts pushed Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) deeper

into the sub-region. The failed truce in El Salvador and the escalating gang-related violence that

has fueled illegal emigration from that country and parts of Honduras since 2014 has refocused

attention on gangs in Central America.

Congressional Interest and Appropriations

Congress has expressed concern about the problem of transnational gangs and interest in the

effectiveness of U.S. international anti-gang efforts. Since the 110th Congress, interest in the topic

of gangs and violence in Central America has included concerns about the domestic and

international criminal activities of the gangs, as well as the relationship between gangs and

Mexican TCOs. Members of Congress have also expressed interest in the effects of U.S.

deportation policy and mano dura approaches in the region on Central American gangs. As

Congress has appropriated significant funding for anti-gang efforts, it has also conducted

oversight of the efficacy of U.S. programs that affect Central American gangs.

Between FY2008 and FY2013, Congress appropriated roughly $38 million in global International

Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds for anti-gang efforts in Central America.

A regional gang adviser based in El Salvador has coordinated Central American gang programs

since that time. The INCLE line item for Central American gang programs ended in FY2013.

Since FY2013, approximately $10 million in Central American Regional Security Initiative

(CARSI) funding has been assigned to continue specific anti-gang initiatives. Hundreds of

millions more has supported broader law-enforcement and prevention efforts that have impacted

the gang phenomenon.

66 Sonia Nazario, “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth got a Little bit Safer,” New York Times, August 11, 2016.

67 Thomas Abt, Christopher Winship, and Democracy International, Inc., What Works in Reducing Community

Violence: A Meta-Review and Field Study for the Northern Triangle, United States Agency for International

Development, February 2016.

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Table 2. Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) Funding:


(in millions of U.S. dollars)

Fiscal Year ESF INCLE NADR FMF Total

FY2008 25.0 24.8 6.2 4.0 60.0

FY2009 18.0 70.0 0.0 17.0 105.0

FY2010 23.0 141.0 0.0 7.0 171.0

FY2011 30.0 71.5 0.0 0.0 101.5

FY2012 50.0 85.0 0.0 0.0 135.0

FY2013 50.6 95.6 0.0 0.0 146.2

FY2014 61.5 100.0 0.0 0.0 161.5

FY2015 100.0 170.0 0.0 0.0 270.0

FY2016 126.5 222.0 0.0 0.0 348.5

Total 484.6 979.9 6.2 28.0 1,498.7

FY2017 (req.) 100.3 205.0 0.0 0.0 305.3

Source: U.S. Department of State.

Notes: ESF = Economic Support Fund; INCLE = International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement;

NADR = Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, De-mining and Related Programs; and FMF = Foreign Military


Evolution of U.S. International Anti-gang Efforts

U.S. agencies have been engaged on both the law-enforcement and the preventive side of dealing

with Central American gangs for more than a decade. In 2004, the Federal Bureau of

Investigation (FBI) created an MS-13 Task Force to improve information sharing and intelligence

gathering among U.S. and Central American law-enforcement officials. In 2005, the Bureau of

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within DHS created a national anti-gang initiative

called “Operation Community Shield”; ICE also has a National Gang Unit. Also in 2005, the U.S.

Agency for International Development (USAID) undertook a comprehensive assessment of the

gang problem in Central America and Mexico. USAID found that although a few U.S. programs

addressed some aspects of the gang phenomenon, several new initiatives would be needed in the

areas of prevention, law enforcement, and rehabilitation and reintegration.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, an interagency committee worked to develop a U.S. Strategy to

Combat Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico, which was announced at a July 2007

U.S.-Central America Integration System summit on security issues.68 The strategy acknowledged

that, based on previous U.S. and regional experiences, future anti-gang efforts should be holistic,

comprehensive, and regional in scope. It called for active engagement with governments and

institutions in the region. The strategy stated that the U.S. government would pursue coordinated

anti-gang activities in five broad areas: diplomacy, repatriation, law enforcement, capacity

68 The Central American Integration System (SICA), a regional organization with a Secretariat in El Salvador, is

composed of the governments of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. The Security

Commission was created in 1995 to develop and carry out regional security efforts. U.S. Department of State, Office of

the Spokesman, “Combating Criminal Gangs from Central America and Mexico,” July 18, 2007.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 16

enhancement, and prevention. In January 2008, the State Department sent a regional gang adviser

to El Salvador to coordinate the State Department’s Central American gang programs. Those

programs have included training and technical assistance to law-enforcement and corrections

officials, anti-gang workshops and training at the International Law Enforcement Academy in San

Salvador, and regional coordination efforts.69

In April 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report concluding that

the U.S. government had developed and implemented an interagency anti-gang strategy that

outlines the threats posed by Central American gangs and the activities each agency is doing to

respond to those threats. However, GAO recommended that the strategy be revised to include

better coordination mechanisms between the agencies and performance measures.

The U.S. government has expanded its citizen-security and law-enforcement programs in Central

America beyond anti-gang efforts and antidrug programs through CARSI, a regional security

initiative for which Congress appropriated roughly $1.5 billion from FY2008 to FY2016. CARSI

has five primary goals: (1) create safe streets for the citizens in the region; (2) disrupt the

movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America; (3)

support the development of strong, capable, and accountable Central American governments; (4)

reestablish effective state presence and security in communities at risk; and (5) foster enhanced

levels of security and rule-of-law coordination and cooperation between the nations.70

In 2015, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars published a comprehensive

assessment of CARSI that raised concerns about the organization’s lack of a comprehensive

strategy to improve citizen security in the region, tendency to focus on combating drug trafficking

with vetted units rather than on broader law-enforcement reform and professionalization, and

weak program evaluation (aside from USAID’s community-based prevention programs).71

State Department

The State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) manages CARSI funding,

with the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) implementing

most State Department programs. INL has sponsored trainings and technical exchanges for

police, prison officers, and justice-sector operators from across the region. INL has also provided

training and equipment to vetted police units and intelligence analysts and established more than

50 community policing/model police precinct locations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and

Honduras.72 INL has trained hundreds of police officers, who have provided training to more than

200,000 youth through the Gang Resistance Education and Training program.73 INL has

embedded U.S. law-enforcement advisers and prosecutors with investigative units that are

conducting money-laundering investigations targeting the leadership of MS-13 in El Salvador.

INL is supporting gang-related research as well, including a study under way by Florida

69 The International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) is based in San Salvador, El Salvador is one of four regional

law-enforcement training academies funded by the State Department’s INL Bureau. The ILEA in San Salvador offers

training and technical assistance to law-enforcement officials from throughout Latin America, including courses in how

to address gang-related crimes and prosecutions.

70 For background, see CRS Report R41731, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy

Issues for Congress, by Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke.

71 Eric Olson Crime and Violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle: How U.S. Policies are Helping,

Hurting, and Can be Improved, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Latin American Program, 2015.

72 U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Efforts to Advance Civilian Security in Central America’s Northern Triangle,” press

release, June 2016, at

73 Ibid.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 17

International University to examine whether and how gang members in El Salvador can leave a

gang without putting their lives at risk.

Additionally, WHA has transferred resources to the Department of Justice; the Department of

Homeland Security, particularly ICE; and USAID to enable those agencies to counter the impact

of gangs in the region. State Department funding is also supporting a regional corrections adviser,

who is assisting with prison-reform programs in the region.

U.S. Agency for International Development

USAID has implemented a variety of country and regional gang-prevention programs. Under

CARSI, USAID supports an approach to crime and violence prevention that directly targets at-

risk individuals and communities while simultaneously helping municipalities to develop and

implement crime-prevention plans. In Honduras, municipalities have received support in

rehabilitating public spaces, installing street lighting, and procuring materials for schools and

recreational facilities. National-level security and justice-sector reform efforts are designed to

strengthen the institutions charged with enforcing and administering justice, including programs

aimed at improving victims assistance, juvenile justice, and respect for human rights. USAID also

produces and disseminates research on what works in crime and violence prevention.

USAID uses geographic and demographic risk factors to provide population-based interventions

to individuals and communities at high risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of crime and

violence. The creation of more than 200 youth outreach centers in high-violence communities has

provided youth with safe places where they can study, participate in recreational activities, and

receive job training and job placement assistance. USAID has built prominent public-private

partnerships with local and multinational companies. For example, mobile phone providers Claro

and Tigo deliver free Internet access to outreach centers in El Salvador and Honduras, and in El

Salvador, Microsoft trains thousands of youth on software and information technology.

Governments also support some programs. The Honduran government has provided $3 million

from its security tax to support USAID’s violence-prevention programming.

Through Vanderbilt University, USAID concluded a rigorous three-year impact evaluation of its

CARSI-funded community-based crime and violence-prevention programs in 120 high-crime

urban treatment and control communities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama.

Final results demonstrated that crime victimization is lower and public perception of security is

higher in USAID’s CARSI treatment communities. Until recently, however, USAID and INL

were working in separate municipalities and were not closely coordinating their efforts.

USAID and INL are now working to implement a “place-based” model in which prevention and

policing programs are co-located and closely coordinated. USAID is providing community-

resiliency programs in communities where INL is training law enforcement in community-based

policing. The model is active in selected sites in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and is

based on evidence from Los Angeles, Ciudad Juárez, and Medellin that integrated prevention and

law-enforcement efforts can have significant impacts in even the most violent communities.

USAID and the State Department are in the process of obtaining a waiver from the Office of

Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) to ensure that programming they have planned to support the

rehabilitation of former gang members does not violate sanctions on MS-13 members. USAID

and INL aim to expand the place-based model to more locations in the coming year.

Department of Justice

Within the Department of Justice (DOJ), the FBI is implementing several programs to improve

the capacity of law enforcement in Central America to carry out investigations and share

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 18

intelligence on gang suspects. The FBI also focuses on developing and protecting witnesses who

will testify in gang cases. The Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and

Training (OPDAT) has provided training on prosecuting gang-related cases to judicial officials in

the region. The deployment of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)

regional adviser to San Salvador is enabling ATF to support transnational gang investigations

involving U.S.-origin firearms. FBI, OPDAT, and ATF programs are supported by CARSI or

other State Department funding and are carried out in collaboration with INL. The programs

include the following:

 Central American Fingerprinting Exchange (CAFÉ): A criminal file and
fingerprint retrieval initiative that has incorporated thousands of fingerprints of

gang members from Mexico, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala into

the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System since 2006.

The data are accessible to Central American police officials.

 Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Units: A program that began in El Salvador in
October 2007 involving the creation of vetted police units that work with FBI

agents stationed in San Salvador to investigate gang-related cases that have a

nexus with the United States. TAG activities have been expanded into Guatemala

and Honduras and have contributed to successful indictments of MS-13 members

in major cities across the United States.

 Central American Law Enforcement Exchange (CALEE): A joint FBI-INL
program that brings law-enforcement officials from Central America together

with their counterparts from several large U.S. cities to share information and


Department of Homeland Security

Since 2005, ICE’s Operation Community Shield has led to the arrest of more than 32,200 gang

members in the United States, including thousands of MS-13 and 18th Street gang members. In

addition to Operation Community Shield, ICE formed an anti-gang task force in Honduras to

gather intelligence to support gang investigations in Honduras and the United States. ICE special

agents are also based at other U.S. embassies in the region, including in Guatemala and El

Salvador. ICE supports Transnational Criminal Investigative Units (TCIUs) in El Salvador,

Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama. The TCIUs focus on transnational investigations and border

crimes, some of which have a nexus with gangs. As previously mentioned, the State Department

and DHS signed an agreement in 2014 to expand the Criminal History Information Sharing

(CHIS) program, which has been used to share information on criminal deportees with Mexican

law-enforcement officials, to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

U.S. Treasury Department

On October 11, 2012, the Treasury Department designated the MS-13 as a significant TCO whose

assets will be targeted for economic sanctions pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13581.74 Issued

in July 2011 as part of the Obama Administration’s National Strategy to Combat Transnational

Organized Crime, E.O. 13581 enables the Treasury Department to block the assets of members

74 The criteria established for declaring a transnational criminal organization (TCO) pursuant to Executive Order 13581

are available at

transnational-criminal-organizations. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Latin American Criminal

Organization,” press release, October 11, 2012.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 19

and associates of designated criminal organizations and prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in

transactions with these individuals.75 The Treasury Department worked with ICE to build

evidence to support the designation of the MS-13 based on the gang’s involvement in “drug

trafficking, kidnapping, human smuggling, sex trafficking, murder,” and other serious criminal

offenses that threaten U.S. and Central American citizens. As of July 2016, eight individuals

appear to have been designated as subject to U.S. sanctions.

Although evidence suggests that some MS-13 cliques collaborate with groups based in El

Salvador, some analysts maintain that transnational collaboration is not the norm for the MS-13.76

Salvadoran officials seemed surprised by the designation, with then-president Funes asserting that

U.S. officials may be “overestimating the economic risk or financial risk resulting from the

criminal actions of the MS.”77 OFAC officials have confirmed that the amount of money

transferred out of the United States from MS-13 gang members or their families or affiliates is

very limited.78 Nevertheless, U.S. law enforcement is working with special police and prosecutors

to investigate some of the designated MS-13 leadership for money-laundering offenses

committed under Salvadoran law.

Possible Questions for Oversight

 Evolving Gang Threat. To what degree are the gangs in Central America
becoming more organized and sophisticated? Are their concerns primarily local

or transnational? What types of ties do these gangs have with other criminal

organizations based in Central America and with Mexican TCOs? To what extent

are cliques in the region communicating with groups in the United States?

 U.S. Strategy. Nine years after the adoption of an interagency strategy to combat
the gangs, what have been the results of U.S. efforts? How is the success or

failure of the strategy being measured? How are domestic and international

efforts in support of the strategy being coordinated?

 CARSI. Analysts have criticized CARSI for lacking a comprehensive strategy
and rigorous monitoring and evaluation. To what extent, if at all, does CARSI

have a guiding strategy behind its programs? How has that strategy evolved over

time? How are the successes or gaps in the implementation of that strategy being

measured and adjusted?

 Leveraging U.S. Assistance. To what extent are U.S. anti-gang efforts being
coordinated with those of other donors? Has the private sector stepped forward to

complement any donor-led initiatives? Have any recipient countries been able to

take over responsibility for programs that began with U.S. funding? How

effective are regional anti-gang efforts?

 New Tools. To what extent are countries in the region using new tools—such as
asset forfeiture and wiretapping—to go after the gangs? How has the Treasury

designation of MS-13 as a TCO affected U.S. and Salvadoran efforts against that


75 The first four criminal organizations that received TCO designations were the Brother’s Circle, the Camorra, Los

Zetas, and the Yakuza. See The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Executive Order 13581—Blocking

Property of Transnational Criminal Organizations,” July 25, 2011.

76 Geoffrey Ramsey, “Tracking El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha in Washington, DC,” Insight Crime, October 12, 2012.

77 Geoffrey Ramsey, “El Salvador President: US ‘Overestimating’ MS-13,” Insight Crime, October 11, 2012.

78 Phone interview with officials from the Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Asset Control, July 5, 2016.

Gangs in Central America

Congressional Research Service RL34112 · VERSION 25 · UPDATED 20

 Gangs as Terrorist Groups. What are the implications of the government of El
Salvador designating gangs as terrorists?

Author Information

Clare Ribando Seelke

Specialist in Latin American Affairs


Thais A. Ramo, a former CRS research associate, provided background research and updated sections of

this product.


This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan

shared staff to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and

under the direction of Congress. Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other

than public understanding of information that has been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in

connection with CRS’s institutional role. CRS Reports, as a work of the United States Government, are not

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copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.

  1. 2018-11-21T14:43:47-0500

Latin America’s Shifting Politics

: Mexico’s Party System
Under Stress

Kenneth F. Greene, Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

Journal of Democracy, Volume 29, Number 4, October 2018, pp. 31-42 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

For additional information about this article

[ Access provided for user ‘samijo1’ at 6 Feb 2021 18:54 GMT from Florida International University ]

Mexico’s Party systeM
Under stress

Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

Kenneth F. Greene is associate professor of government at the Univer-
sity of Texas–Austin and author of Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mex-
ico’s Democratization in Comparative Perspective (2007). Mariano
Sánchez-Talanquer is assistant professor of politics at the Centro de
Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City.

On 1 July 2018, leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador
(AMLO) won Mexico’s presidency with 53 percent of the popular vote—
a landslide total in a four-candidate race and about 20 percentage points
higher than he had polled in two prior runs for the nonrenewable six-year
term. In 2018, voters gave him a larger mandate than any Mexican presi-
dent had received since 1982. He carried all but one of the country’s 32
states and assembled a socially diverse majority that included the left’s
small traditional base plus a far larger group of independents. His con-
gressional coalition, an alliance of his own National Regeneration Move-
ment (MORENA) and two smaller parties, won outright majorities in
both houses. After winning candidates from other parties decided to join
MORENA’s caucus, his coalition controls 313 seats in the 500-member
Chamber of Deputies and 70 seats in the 128-member Senate. Following
AMLO’s inauguration on December 1, the world’s largest Spanish-speak-
ing country and fifth-largest democracy will be led by a leftist nationalist
for the first time since Mexico’s democratization in 2000.

Mexico began 2018 with one of Latin America’s most stable party
systems, but the continuation of that stability is now in doubt. Draw-
ing on public dissatisfaction over chronic poverty and inequality, slow
economic growth, rapidly escalating violent crime, and a parade of cor-
ruption scandals, AMLO’s antisystem rhetoric led voters to question
the nature of political power in Mexico’s new democracy. His ascent
badly damaged the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the onetime
dominant party that survived democratization, reinvented itself, and re-
turned to the presidency in 2012. Six years later, the candidate of the

Journal of Democracy Volume 29, Number 4 October 2018
© 2018 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press

Latin America’s Shifting Politics

32 Journal of Democracy

coalition led by the PRI, José Antonio Meade, mustered a distant third
with just 16.4 percent of the popular vote. The two parties that spear-
headed democratization and gave structure to Mexico’s party system
also now find themselves in trouble. The leftist Party of the Democratic
Revolution (PRD) is unlikely to survive MORENA’s rise, and the right-
ist National Action Party (PAN) faces deep internal rifts after a bruising
nomination battle. Both parties weakened their brand names by forming
a once-unthinkable left-plus-right alliance in support of Ricardo Anaya,
who was runner-up to AMLO with 22.3 percent of the vote. The co-
alition will hold little legislative power with just 37 Senate seats and
127 lower-house seats. The fourth candidate in the presidential race was
Governor Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez from the economically impor-
tant northern state of Nuevo León. Running as Mexico’s first indepen-
dent presidential candidate, he garnered just 5.2 percent.

Why did AMLO and MORENA win, and what does the left’s as-
cent mean for pressing public-policy concerns as well as the longer-term
consolidation of Mexico’s democracy? It could be that 2018 marks a
turning point in a long-term process of partisan dealignment. Parties
with roots in the dominant-party era may see their support wither as
chronically displeased voters (like those in other countries that experi-
enced party-system breakdown) turn to personalistic outsiders, engage
in serial protest voting against incumbents, or turn away from elector-
al politics to voice their discontent outside current institutions. More
probably, however, the party system is undergoing a process of recom-
position, and will reform with even more stability. The programmatic
differences that have sustained the existing parties remain salient, and
registration barriers as well as strict campaign-finance regulations make
it difficult for new alternatives to gain a foothold. On the basis of this
structure, the party system could reform with MORENA substituting
for the PRD as the standard-bearer of the left and the PAN coordinating
opposition from the right. If the PRI can once again rise from the ashes,
the system will include an extra “half-bloc” that could play a pivotal role
by swinging support to one of the two main blocs.

Why AMLO Won

As late as 2017, the 64-year-old AMLO looked like anything but
a sure bet for the presidency. In 2006, at a time when conditions fa-
vored the left throughout Latin America, he came within 0.56 percent-
age points of winning the presidency, yet with only 35.3 percent of the
vote. In 2012, his star faded as he lost by 6.7 percentage points. On both
occasions he headed the ticket of the PRD, a party with the loyal support
of about 15 percent of the electorate, but AMLO seemed unable to reach
the large group of moderate independents that lay beyond.

During these prior runs, his polarizing rhetoric, including claims that

33Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

he lost the presidency due to vote fraud and other dirty tricks, and his ac-
ceptance of the title of “legitimate president” bestowed by his backers in
2006, stoked his base but made him easy fodder for rivals’ campaigns. His
2014 decision to found MORENA also seemed risky. Not only would it
compete for the PRD’s limited vote, but Mexico’s election law puts new
parties at a considerable financial and advertising disadvantage. Even if
AMLO could finally live down his image as a danger for Mexico in 2018,
he would now have to compete with independent candidates and a bevy of
new small parties portending divided government.

What was it that instead produced the results summarized in the Table
above? How has Mexico come to have its first unified government and first
majority president since the advent of competitive democracy in 2000?

The answer is that AMLO was able to tap a deep vein of voter frus-
tration with chronic poverty and inequality, rising violence, and public
corruption, while the already-tried PAN and PRI were unable to offer
credible alternatives. AMLO’s campaign deftly took advantage of cir-
cumstances to make the 2018 contest into a choice between change and
“more of the same.”

Since 2000 or arguably even 1994, independent voters have held the key
to the Mexican presidency. The country’s peculiar combination of numer-
ous independent voters and a structured, three-bloc party system is a legacy
of competitive authoritarianism under the formerly dominant PRI. Mexi-
co’s transition away from dominant-party rule took place not through sud-
den regime collapse, but gradually through the ballot box. As the PRI lost

Coalition/Parties Pres. Vote Share

Chamber of
Deputies Senate




Juntos Haremos Historia 53% 313 63% 70 55%
national regeneration Movement (Morena) 255 51% 59 46%
Labor Party (Pt) 28 6% 6 5%
social encounter Party (Pes) 30 6% 5 4%

Por México al Frente 22% 127 25% 37 29%
national action Party (Pan) 79 16% 24 19%
Party of the democratic revolution (Prd) 20 4% 6 5%
citizens’ Movement (Mc) 28 6% 7 5%

Todos por México 16% 58 12% 19 15%
institutional revolutionary Party (Pri) 47 9% 14 11%
Mexican Green ecologist Party (PVeM) 11 2% 5 4%
new alliance Party (PanaL) – – – –

Independent 2 0% 1 1%

Table—Mexico’s 2018 General elecTion resulTs

Sources: Instituto Nacional Electoral,;

Instituto Nacional Electoral – INE

34 Journal of Democracy

support, more voters became available to the PAN and PRD. As longtime
opponents of a dominant incumbent occupying the broad center, however,
the PRD and the PAN had honed their ideologies as leftist and rightist chal-
lengers, respectively, particularly on economic policy. Their appeals were
thus out of step with the growing group of voters who felt unrepresented by
the PRI’s authoritarianism, the PAN’s rightism, and the PRD’s leftism. The
legacies of party-building under dominant-party rule bequeathed three dis-
tinct partisan options with minority support and strong incentives to capture
relatively centrist independent voters through campaigns.1

The 2018 campaign saw the importance of independent voters inten-
sify. AmericasBarometer surveys asking the same questions over time
show the share of independents rose by about 16 percentage points since
the last general election in 2012, topping out at a whopping 81 percent
of the electorate.2 Other work shows that independents are not simply
“shy partisans.” Unlike in the United States, where citizens often under-
state their partisan attachments, many in Mexico report partisan identi-
ties but behave like persuadable independents at election periods.3

At the same time, antisystem sentiment soared during the last presiden-
tial term, especially among the large group of independents. By the 2018
campaign season, just 26.2 percent of independent voters said that they
were very or somewhat satisfied with democracy in Mexico, and less than
half said that they respected the country’s political institutions, down from
two-thirds in the mid-2000s (again per AmericasBarometer). In addition,
trust in political parties fell to just 13 percent. Independent voters were
both more numerous and hungrier for something other than the status quo.

Three Sources of Discontent

While more data and analyses are needed, plausibly three chronic so-
cial and economic problems drive discontent. First, Mexico’s dual transi-
tion to democracy and a market-based development model brought ris-
ing expectations of modernity, broad-based prosperity, and accountable
government. There has been progress, but many citizens’ expectations
remain unmet. The degree to which economic well-being has improved is
a matter of debate. The most optimistic voices cite a fourfold increase in
GDP per capita since 1986 (the low point following the 1982 debt crisis),
falling inequality since the 1990s as measured by the Gini coefficient, and
rising access to education, healthcare, and housing.4

Other analyses paint a bleaker picture. Although antipoverty pro-
grams have broadened access to a number of important services, the
federal government’s own measure of income poverty (including sub-
sidies as well as wages) reveals scant progress between 1992 and 2016.
Nearly a fifth (18 percent) of Mexicans still make less than the cost of
the basic food basket, and more than half (51 percent) earn less than the
government-estimated cost of basic goods and services.5 Severe poverty

35Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

is about sixteen times more common in rural than in urban areas, and it
clusters with special density in the southern states.

Meanwhile, privatization has created billionaires and increased the
concentration of wealth at the very top of the distribution. Officialdom’s
coziness with big business has earned Mexico the sixth place on the
Economist’s Crony Capitalism Index. Amid all this, and with inflation
more than doubling between 2015 and 2017, the insistence by both PRI
and PAN administrations that structural reforms would yield broad pros-
perity rang hollow to many.

The second important source of discontent is crime. When President
Felipe Calderón (PAN) took office in late 2006, the homicide rate had
been dropping since as far back as 1940, and stood at 9.34 per 100,000
residents, equal to the U.S. average for the early 1990s. But a surg-
ing overland cocaine trade spawned increasingly violent drug-traffick-
ing organizations. The federal government estimates that just shy of
190,000 intentional homicides have been committed since 2006, with
2017 the deadliest year on record (25,339 homicides).6 The attempted
cure—sending in the military—has had dire consequences of its own.
The National Human Rights Commission reported approximately ten-
thousand complaints against the army between 2006 and 2016, includ-
ing more than a hundred cases of enforced disappearances, torture, and
extrajudicial killings.7

Violence varies widely in its distribution across the country, but it is
on the news every night and has deeply shaken trust in the state’s abil-
ity to provide basic security. Below the headlines, an increase in lesser
crimes has marred daily life. A government survey estimates that nearly
one in five citizens experienced a crime in 2016 alone, with over half
being incidents of robbery, assault, and extortion.8

Finally, the perception of rampant corruption among public officials
drives discontent. Poorly paid minor bureaucrats and police officers have
a reputation for graft and petty shakedowns. Government surveys for 2017
show that nearly 15 percent of citizens reported having been targeted at
least once during the year by a corrupt official. Further, a series of recent
scandals involving both elected officeholders and senior bureaucrats has
fed the impression of persistent influence-peddling and conflicts of inter-
est. Surveys show that 91.1 percent of respondents think corruption is
frequent or very frequent in their state. Confidence in core institutions is
strikingly low: Only 33 percent trust local government, while trust in the
federal government and Congress is even lower.9 Worse still are percep-
tions of political parties: 56 percent say that the PAN is corrupt, while 71
and 83 percent say the same about the PRD and the PRI, respectively.10

Corruption can be much darker than simple graft. In too many parts of
Mexico the rule of law is weak, and criminal organizations confront public
officials with the choice of plata o plomo—a bribe or a bullet—that all but
forces holders of the public trust to become complicit with criminal agents.

36 Journal of Democracy

In one of the most jarring examples, 43 college students in the state of
Guerrero disappeared in September 2014, probable victims of mysterious
ties among the local mayor, the police, and a drug-cartel faction.

During the 2018 campaign season, political figures experienced lethal
violence—plomo—firsthand: 371 bureaucrats, 104 elected officials, 20
candidates, and 28 pre-candidates still competing for nominations were
assassinated. Even attempts to report on malfeasance are in jeopardy:
Forty-four journalists have been murdered since 2012, making Mexico
the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous country for journalists.11

The Candidates and the Vote

Public anger at these persistent problems put the PAN and the PRI
in a bind. As the two parties that held the presidency since Mexico’s
democratization in 2000, they needed candidates who represented a
“fresh start” in independents’ eyes, yet whom party insiders and loyal-
ists could also accept. Neither party found such a candidate in 2018.

With President Enrique Pe~na Nieto beset by historically low approval
numbers and an air of corruption and incompetence swirling around his
administration, the PRI sought a candidate undamaged by scandal. It
settled on Meade, a technocrat who had served in PAN and PRI cabinets
but lacked an electoral record and even a formal PRI affiliation. Meade
was an awkward candidate with a weak personal presence who devoted
his first campaign ads to explaining how to pronounce his last name.
Needing to distance himself from a party in disrepute, he held back from
forging strong links with sitting PRI governors. Without their help, the
PRI could not leverage its unique advantage—it has Mexico’s only na-
tionwide party organization that can deploy legions of canvassers and
encourage support through clientelistic linkages.

The PAN suffered a similar fate in its attempt to provide an alternative
to the status quo. Anaya won a bruising nomination battle with a modern-
izing and centrist discourse. He distanced himself from the mano dura se-
curity policies of the prior president from the PAN, Felipe Calderón, and
sought to woo independents by crafting Por México al Frente, the alliance
leaguing the PAN with its old archrival the PRD plus a small leftist party.
Unfortunately for Anaya, forging this coalition split and weakened the
PAN. During the campaign, the two trailing candidates undercut each oth-
er, with the PRI camp hurling money-laundering charges that made Anaya
look like part of the malignant status quo that AMLO railed against.

The only partisan bloc not weighed down by the baggage of earlier
administrations was AMLO’s. His credentials were further burnished by
quitting the PRD, which supported part of Pe~na Nieto’s 2012 structural-
reform package. Making the most of his advantage, AMLO built a master
narrative of regime crisis rooted in generalized corruption. He blamed
bad government for poverty and inequality, public insecurity, poor ser-

37Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

vices, and the misuse of public funds. He denounced technocrats and
crony capitalists as a “mafia of power” that had used the “PRIAN” (an
amalgamation of the PRI and the PAN) to push ruinous market-oriented
reforms since the mid-1980s. Whereas Meade and Anaya courted centrist
independents through traditional means by making moderate econom-
ic-policy appeals, AMLO did so by mobilizing a cleavage pitting “ins”
against “outs” and the status quo against change.

AMLO’s denunciation of a cynical ruling elite that he called a “rapa-
cious minority,” utterly out of touch with the plight of ordinary people,
was a holdover from prior presidential runs. New in 2018 were his calls
for a “big tent” coalition against these entrenched interests, even if his
statements were occasionally inconsistent. On the one hand, he struck ire-
nic tones akin to Lula’s successful run for Brazil’s presidency in 2002,
saying he would “govern for all” and calling for peace, love, and recon-
ciliation. On the other hand, he nodded to conservative interests and em-
braced hawkish fiscal positions. He met with the CEO of the investment
firm BlackRock, and he pledged to maintain macroeconomic orthodoxy,
respect property rights, cut the fiscal deficit, and not raise taxes.

This mixture of openness and surgical attacks seemed to work. Not
only did AMLO win 97 percent of the precincts that had gone to the
PRD in 2012 and 52 percent of former PAN precincts, but he drained
the PRI’s power base by carrying 79 percent of its 2012 precincts. At
the individual level, AMLO drew his support almost evenly from across
all income and education groups. He did poll his best among men and
urban voters with more than primary schooling and higher incomes, but
the difference was not dramatic.

Although AMLO’s victory represents a cry against the status quo, it
is not a mandate to tear down the pillars of Mexico’s democracy or its
market-based economy. The “left turn” that began across much of Latin
America in 1998 was preceded by a rise in voter preference for statist
policies, but there was no such shift in Mexico in 2018. Even allowing
for the unpopularity of Pe~na Nieto’s structural reforms, public opinion
on major economic-policy issues remains notably centrist. If anything,
support for free trade and private ownership of Mexico’s most important
industries increased during the last decade.12

Broadly put, AMLO followed the general recipe for winning the
Mexican presidency under democracy: attract independent voters. Yet
the ingredients and the proportions of this recipe have changed. Inde-
pendent voters are now a bigger chunk of the electorate, and this time
around they were not only centrists on economic policy but also felt a
strong antisystem pull. They viewed the PRI and the PAN as jointly re-
sponsible for disappointing economic performance, rising crime and vi-
olence, and chronic corruption. Although the PRD never controlled the
federal government, its acquiescence to Pe~na Nieto’s 2012 reform pack-
age and its control of the relevant governor’s and mayor’s offices when

38 Journal of Democracy

the 43 Guerrero students disappeared weakened its appeal. The party
system inherited from the dominant-party era is clearly under stress.

A Turning Point for the Party System

In democracies, elections are routine events that rarely transform
the party system. Mexico’s 2018 election, however, leaves significant
changes in its wake. As noted, partisan dealignment is possible, but we
argue that the more likely outcome is a recomposition of the system with
strong programmatic alignments.

Several forces push toward dealignment. Independent voters are
growing more numerous and hold more antisystem attitudes. Rejection
of the status quo pummeled the traditional parties. It spread turmoil
within both the PRI and the PAN, forcing splits, awkward alliances,
and the nomination of candidates who could not bridge the gap between
party loyalists and independents.

The PRI’s historic loss will force it to confront thorny questions about
its identity under democracy. Like other authoritarian successor parties, the
PRI after 2000 promoted itself as the “steady hand” that could steer the
ship of state smoothly. After the unpopular Pe~na Nieto administration, its
reputation is in tatters. Much of its presence at the regional and local levels
is gone, and rival factions fighting over what is left could rip the party apart.

The PAN has long had the most coherent identity of any party, born
of high barriers for new members to join and a hierarchical internal
structure.13 Yet its campaign alliance with the (probably moribund) PRD
sparked defections and cast doubt on the PAN’s conservative credentials.

In some ways, MORENA is the least structured of the major parties. It
is only a few years old and served as a personalistic vehicle for AMLO’s
drive to the presidency. It represents a diverse coalition of traditional left-
ists from the PRD, labor unions, breakaway PRI and PAN elites, and even
social conservatives associated with evangelical churches. How the dis-
parate interests and agendas of all these groups can be satisfied is hard
to see. Failure to meet the high expectations that AMLO fostered on the
campaign trail could split MORENA, and the prohibition on reelection
will touch off a potentially divisive succession battle as his term nears its
end. Unlike other leftist leaders in Latin America who have pushed consti-
tutional reforms to permit reelection, AMLO is likely to respect the strong
norm of no reelection that is rooted in the 1910 Revolution.

Perhaps the era of structured parties is over in Mexico. Arguably, the
2018 election cycle already anticipates some of the traits of political
competition in weakly institutionalized systems, including the increas-
ing personalization of politics and the eschewing of the term “party”
itself, now turned into a dirty word. Thus AMLO led a “movement,”
Anaya headed a “front,” Jaime Rodríguez was an “independent,” and
Meade was a “citizen candidate” who shed the PRI’s emblem.

39Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

If Mexico’s party system were to truly decompose like Peru’s or
Venezuela’s, important aspects of democracy would erode. Displeased
with the partisan alternatives, citizens might engage in serial protest
voting, go outside institutional channels to voice discontent, or with-
draw from politics altogether. The discrediting of party organizations
could discourage office-seekers from accepting the demands of party
life, such as agreeing on policies and cultivating party labels that give
citizens a shorthand sense of what they are voting for. Instead, direct
mass-media appeals and personalistic vehicles assembled for immediate
campaign purposes could become the main routes to power. Electoral
politics would become more fluid and erratic, making legislative coordi-
nation difficult, complicating policy implementation, and even opening
the door to authoritarian leaders who can, in the absence of organized
partisan opposition, more easily undermine liberal rights.

Mexico will probably avoid this fate, however. The divide between
redistributionist and market-oriented camps remains clear enough to
support “programmatic differentiation” and a stable party system. The
major parties have core constituencies that strongly identify with ei-
ther leftist or rightist economic-policy positions. Though small, these
blocs yield consistent bases of support. Even more importantly, political
elites have continued to coordinate their efforts through three blocs now
mainly represented by the PAN, the PRI, and MORENA. These parties
jointly cover the ideological spectrum and present voters with a limited
menu of viable options on election day.14

This core logic has not been overturned, nor have the actors suddenly
changed. With an ideology and platform close to the PRD’s and many
ex-PRD activists in its ranks, MORENA has a strong note of continuity
with its leftist predecessor. AMLO too is a product of the existing sys-
tem more than he is a disruptive outsider. He is a professional politician
who rose through the ranks of the party system, not a military figure like
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, nor a social-movement leader like Bolivia’s
Evo Morales. After a dozen years in the PRI, López Obrador joined the
PRD upon its formation in 1989. Later, he ran for the governorship of
his home state of Tabasco on the PRD ticket, served as party president,
won election as head of government in Mexico City, and ran for the
presidency in 2006 and 2012.

Institutional rules also facilitate continued stability in the party sys-
tem. The National Electoral Institute (which administers voting), the
Federal Electoral Tribunal (who interprets election law and certifies re-
sults), and the Specialized Prosecutor for Election Crime (which inves-
tigates charges of malfeasance) have a combined track record of giving
the country free and fair elections. Political parties have legal status
as “public-interest organizations,” making them subject to the election-
management bodies’ strict rules regarding party organization and cam-
paign dynamics. AMLO has been these bodies’ biggest critic, with his

40 Journal of Democracy

charges that fraud and other malfeasance cost him the presidency pre-
viously. Having overseen the electoral process that produced his 2018
win, however, these institutions emerge reinforced.

The “rules of the game” in Mexico are stacked against new parties
and independent candidates. Party finance and media access are doled
out by formula and paid for out of public funds, with virtually no private
contributions permitted. This gives extant and larger parties an edge.
Although MORENA is a new label, it is no accident that most of its can-
didates and personnel are veterans from other parties, chiefly the PRD.
Other parties and, for the first time, independent candidates competed
in 2018, but they were at such a disadvantage that two of the newer en-
trants will lose their registration. The rules yield party leaders with con-
trol over funding and nominations, encouraging coordination between
local and national politicians under a small number of labels. The PAN
and the PRI have lost vote share, but the system’s design shields them
from competition by limiting new entrants.

Adapting to the Post-2018 Reality

The underlying programmatic alignments that sort political elites and
voters into distinct blocs, along with the rules that privilege larger exist-
ing parties, should be enough to keep the system going as it adapts itself
to the post-2018 reality. The left has a new and more muscular mainstay
in MORENA. The size of its bloc will depend on how well AMLO man-
ages expectations and how well MORENA institutionalizes itself. Given
electoral rules that reward electoral performance, the party will go into
the 2021 midterms with solid funding and media access, plus unprec-
edented access to public office across the country. The geographically
broad appeal that MORENA showed in 2018 bodes well for its future as
a national political force.

The PAN, which holds ten governorships and almost three-hundred
state-legislature seats in addition to its 79 Chamber of Deputies and 24
Senate seats, will coordinate the center-right opposition. No matter how
successful AMLO is in office, a significant slice of the electorate will
support MORENA’s challengers in upcoming elections. The PAN is
best poised to attract these voters because it is not closely tied with Pe~na
Nieto’s failures, it managed a second-place finish in the 2018 elections,
it is a well-organized party with a professional staff and committed ac-
tivists, and it will likely overcome recent rifts to recover its identity
as the main voice of the right. Unlike the left, with its organizational
changes over the years, the PAN has been almost the sole represen-
tative of conservative forces since its founding in 1939. These forces
include institutions with financial clout and organizing prowess such as
the Catholic Church and its lay organizations, as well as business and
professional groups.

41Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer

The open question is whether this two-bloc system has space for a
large third party. The PRI was once history’s most successful domi-
nant party, having ruled Mexico continuously from 1929 to 2000. It still
holds a dozen governorships, about a third of state-legislative seats, and
many local governments, but its brand is damaged and its resources di-
minished. Perhaps its best chance for renewal depends on its remaining
governors to coordinate on a platform that positions the PRI between the
major left-wing and right-wing blocs.

A centrist PRI willing to negotiate with MORENA could become
pivotal during upcoming policy debates. AMLO’s congressional coali-
tion is 21 Chamber of Deputies votes and 16 Senate votes shy of the
supermajority needed to pass constitutional reforms, including overturn-
ing the 2013 education law that the president-elect opposes. Parties are
notoriously disciplined in Mexico’s Congress. Thus, if the PAN and its
allies stand in opposition to the AMLO administration, the PRI could
exact a high price for its cooperation.

The size of AMLO and MORENA’s victories could enable some
of his coalition’s most strident leftist voices, but his government will
likely respect the market model, private enterprise, and the importance
of continued commercial relations with the United States. During the
campaign, he sounded more like a fiscal hawk than a traditional leftist,
pledging to respect the central bank’s autonomy, cut the public deficit,
not raise taxes, and launch new fiscal-austerity measures that include
cutting salaries and perks for top and upper-middle government employ-
ees and eliminating temporary public jobs.

AMLO’s government will likely focus on infrastructure and social
spending in an attempt to expand access to education, spur job growth,
and diminish inequality. He has proposed new cash transfers for teenage
students and unemployed young people, more generous universal pen-
sions for the elderly, and public investment to stimulate the domestic
market and invigorate the energy sector, including building new oil re-
fineries. Perhaps the pressing area where clear ideas are least apparent is
security. For the time being, we expect intelligence cooperation with the
United States to continue, and the military to retain its policing duties in
the most violent regions.

AMLO’s plan to finance his spending programs through more strin-
gent control over the public budget will likely enhance executive power.
He has appointed 32 coordinators, one per state, who will oversee fed-
eral spending. Even if these coordinators do not exert partisan pressure
on opposition governors, they are bound to raise tensions in Mexico’s
formally federal system.

Nevertheless, the budget for AMLO’s programs is unlikely to be bal-
anced by the cost savings from moving against government corruption
and wasteful spending. Finding the money elsewhere will require tough
decisions that could strain his support coalition. Interestingly, he has

42 Journal of Democracy

called for a constitutional reform to require a referendum on his presi-
dency concurrent with the 2021 midterm elections. We may thus have an
early indicator of the public’s confidence in Mexico’s first democrati-
cally elected president with a majority mandate.


1. Kenneth F. Greene, Why Dominant Parties Lose: Mexico’s Democratization in
Comparative Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

2. Other series show independents peaking at 66 percent. “Proyecto: Partidos Políti-
cos,” August 2017,

3. Kenneth F. Greene, “Campaign Persuasion and Nascent Partisanship in Mexico’s
New Democracy,” American Journal of Political Science 55 (April 2011): 398–416,

4. Luis de la Calle and Luis Rubio, Mexico: A Middle Class Society : Poor No More,
Developed Not Yet (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2012).

5. Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social (CONEVAL),
“Evolución de las Dimensiones de la Pobreza 1990–2016,”

6. Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, “Tasas por cada
100 mil habitantes 1997–2017,” 20 January 2018,
docs/pdfs/tasas%20por%20cada%20100%20mil%20habitantes/Tasas122017 .

7. Human Rights Watch, “Mexico, Events of 2016,”

8. INEGI, “Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción Sobre Seguridad Pública
(ENVIPE) 2017: Boletín de Prensa, Núm 417/17,” 26 September 2017,
saladeprensa/boletines/2017/envipe/envipe2017_09 , 6.

9. INEGI, “Encuesta Nacional de Calidad e Impacto Gubernamental (ENCIG) 2017:
Principales Resultados,” March 2018,
chogares/regulares/encig/2017/doc/encig2017_principales_resultados .

10. Causa Probable, “Según el Corruptómetro, los partidos más corruptos, de cara a
2018, son:,”

11. Article 19, “Periodistas asesinados en México,” 24 July 2018, https://articulo19.

12. AmericasBarometer shows support for income redistribution and state ownership
decreased by 11.5 and 9 percentage points, respectively, from 2008 to 2017.

13. Greene, Why Dominant Parties Lose.

14. Kenneth F. Greene and Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer, “Authoritarian Legacies and
Party System Stability in Mexico,” in Scott Mainwaring, ed., Party Systems in Latin
America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 2018), 201–26.;TICOS;TICOS

Periodistas asesinadas/os

Periodistas asesinadas/os

CanCuba Change?

Tensions in the Regime

Eusebio Mujal-León

Journal of Democracy, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2009, pp. 20-35 (Article)

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press

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tensions in the regime

Eusebio Mujal-León

Eusebio Mujal-León is associate professor of government at George-
town University and director of the Cuba XXI Project there. His books
include Communism and Political Change in Spain (1983), European
Socialism and the Conflict in Central America (1989), and The USSR
and Latin America (1989). He is working on a book about regime
change in Cuba.

Fifty years ago, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. Against all odds,
he and his Revolution have endured, outlasting no fewer than ten U.S.
presidents and surviving the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Finally,
in February 2008, he formally turned power over to his younger brother,
Raúl Castro. The succession took place so uneventfully that one observer
characterized it as “Fidel Castro’s final victory.”1 A victory it certainly
was, at least with respect to those who had anticipated that without the
charismatic leader at the helm, the regime would immediately collapse.
But history did not end when Raúl Castro became president. Neither did
the clock stop on the considerable problems that he inherited from his
brother, nor on the profound challenges that he faced in managing the
transition from a highly personalized system of rule while also trying to
rouse Cuba’s economy from its state-induced coma and satisfy pent-up
popular demands.

Change in Cuba did not begin when Fidel Castro stepped aside. It had
been underway since the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet
Union effectively ended the Cuban “socialist” experiment. This disas-
ter resulted in a drop of 30 to 40 percent in GDP and introduced what
Fidel Castro called the “special period in a time of peace.” The regime
sought to palliate the social consequences of this economic earthquake
while searching for new trade and investment partners and straining to
maintain internal order. Its survival strategy involved major adjustments
in economic and social policies. Among these were the “dollarization”
of the economy and the introduction of a dual currency; the granting of

Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 1 January 2009
© 2009 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press

Mujal_Leon.NEW saved from PJC email by BK on 11/11/0 (prior versions renamed). 7,930 words includ-
ing notes; TXT created w/ PJC edits, 11/12/08. TXT saved from PJC email by BK on 11/17/08 (replaces
Mujal_Leon.old.txt ):6,943 words incl. notes; MP edits to TXT, 11/19/08; FIN created from AAS by
PJC, 11/25/08. PGS created from FIN by BK on 11/26/08.

Can Cuba Change?

21Eusebio Mujal-León

permits to engage in limited self-employment; the reopening of farmers’
markets; the search for foreign capital and the creation of numerous joint-
venture companies (many of them run by officers of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces [FAR]); the encouragement of tourism and remittances
from Cubans living abroad; and the direction of investment away from
social programs and toward those sectors that would likely prove most
attractive to foreign investors.

The reforms of the “special period” allowed the Cuban Revolution
to survive, but they also transformed the structure of the economy and
society. One major effect was the reintroduction of capitalism. Quite
evidently, capitalism had never entirely disappeared from the island.
For one thing, as in all other state-centered economies, it was visible
in the informal sector or underground economy, whose size was (and
continues to be) substantial. Moreover, although expropriations during
the 1960s had effectively ended entrepreneurial capitalism in Cuba, the
Revolution created a system of state-monopoly capitalism wherein the
perks of ownership passed to those who controlled economic enterprises
through the state. The “special period” added impetus to this process by
tossing an alliance with foreign investors into the mix. The joint-venture
companies created enclaves of (protected) capitalism. The strategy of
enclave capitalism and reliance on remittances from Cubans overseas
magnified social inequalities based on who had access to dollars and
other resources.

The reforms of the “special period” also had contradictory effects on
the Cuban state. The emergence of joint ventures increased state discre-
tionary power by creating a new pool of jobs and benefits to be doled out
to favored recipients.2 That military personnel administered most of these
joint-venture companies only added to the perception of an interlocking
elite involved in a “protection racket.” Although these measures helped
the regime to survive and reinforced the loyalty of the ruling coalition,
they also weakened the capacities of the Cuban state. Collaboration
between the ubiquitous Comités de Defensa de la Revolución and the
security forces ensured control and prevented dissidence from becoming
opposition. Vertical control of information impeded horizontal commu-
nication and hindered the development of associational life and activity.
So did the day-to-day struggles that millions of Cubans faced to obtain
food, medicine, and other scarce items. Yet the Cuban state of the 1990s
was but a pale shadow of what it had once been. Though its cadres still
evidenced “totalitarian” aspirations, their reach exceeded their grasp.
Mobilization became episodic, and social spending declined. There were
growing deficits in health care, education, transport, and housing—the
vaunted “social gains” of the Revolution.

For students of democratization, the fundamental questions regarding
Cuba relate to the nature of the regime and to identifying cases and themes
that provide the greatest analytical leverage for comparison. Within a

22 Journal of Democracy

few years of his January 1959 takeover, Fidel Castro had consolidated a
totalitarian regime in which the state controlled all spheres of cultural,
economic, and social life. The drive to create a New Man and to embark
on a rapid transition to communism reflected this utopian and totalitarian
imperative. There are distinctive aspects of the Cuban case, however. For
one thing, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) did not make the Revolu-
tion. Instead it was the rebel army under the leadership of Fidel Castro that
led this process. A unified Communist Party was not created until 1965.
The PCC did not hold its first congress until 1975. Only in the 1990s did
a new generation of PCC leaders assume real power in provincial and
municipal organizations. Even today, the Party is the weaker link in the
political-military chain that rules Cuba.

Points of Comparison

Relative to other twentieth-century totalitarian experiments, the Cuban
regime has developed a special mix of control, mobilization, and harass-
ment. Since the crushing of internal opposition in the 1960s, the regime
has created a system of “vertical” controls that concentrate power in the
hands of the state and “disempower” and “direct” society, while in the
process diminishing alternative or horizontal information flows, contacts,
organizations, and solidarity networks. The linchpin in this system has
been provided by the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, a network
of neighborhood controls that works closely with the Ministry of the
Interior and whose innovative aspect has been the use of citizens to spy
on and control other citizens.3 The mix of social control and coercion by
security forces draws added strength from Cuba’s island status, as well
as from the absence of the many opponents who have chosen “exit” over
“voice” (nearly 15 percent of Cubans live outside their country). The
low-intensity “civil war” between Cuba South and Cuba North (as we
might refer to the zones whose respective capitals are Havana and Miami)
and the “cold war” with the United States reinforced the militarization of
Cuban society and further justified control and repression.

The Cuban regime has evolved over the past fifteen years, moving from
full totalitarianism to what a coauthor and I have called elsewhere a more
transitional “charismatic post-totalitarianism.”4 The state and regime saw
their capacity decline after the 1990s, while disbelief in the reigning ide-
ology grew. Yet Fidel Castro’s “charismatic” authority retained its force
even as elites and society alike progressively realized that the post-Castro
era and a different style of rule lay around the corner. Since Fidel Castro
fell ill in 2006, the trend toward posttotalitarianism has deepened, and
the pending question now is whether the Cuban regime will “mature”
into this phase, or move toward another regime type.

If Cuba is undergoing a process of regime transition, what other ex-
periences might provide insights into this process? One set of references

23Eusebio Mujal-León

includes the Portuguese and Spanish transitions that started the “third
wave” of democratization in the 1970s. The Spanish model of “negoti-
ated settlement” resulted from the decomposition of an authoritarian
regime and its transition to a parliamentary democracy in the context of
an emerging European “space.”5 Neither the nature of the Castro regime
nor the characteristics of Cuba (with its weak civil society and heroic
but atomized opposition) suggest that the Spanish case is relevant at
this point. For now, if Spain offers parameters for comparison, these
might involve the experience of the late 1940s. At that time, the early
authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco was isolated, reeling from the
defeat of its Axis allies, and suffering from 1946 onward under a UN-
sanctioned embargo. How the Spanish regime survived this crisis might
be usefully compared with the Cuban experience in the 1990s. For its part,
the Portuguese experience of the 1970s, where the dynamic of colonial
adventure gone sour fueled the rise of praetorianism, offers insights into
the connection between Cuba’s military disengagement from the Angolan
Civil War and the rise of discontent among sectors of the Cuban military
during the 1980s.

The East European cases provide another point of reference from
which to examine the issue of regime change in Cuba. Again, the con-
trasts seem more marked than the similarities. The first major difference
lies in how nationalism fueled the East European struggle against Soviet
imperialism. Although the intensity of this sentiment varied from case to
case, nationalism came down squarely on the side of those who favored
regime change. This was certainly the case in Poland, where nationalism,
the Catholic Church, and the autonomous labor movement associated
with Solidarity formed an early wedge that eventually brought forth
democracy. This process took ten years, and included the imposition of
martial law and a “military” coup, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, to
uphold Communist rule. By contrast, Fidel Castro and the new regime that
he brought to his country always presented themselves as the standard-
bearers of Cuban nationalism and as the true heirs of independence hero
José Martí (1853–95).

If we set the nationalist variable aside, the Central and East Euro-
pean experiences look more relevant. Except in Poland, the first half of
the 1980s was a time of stability, with far more examples of dissidence
than of organized or effective opposition. Very few appreciated the sig-
nificance of the Helsinki Accords or Charter 77, and even fewer knew
of the obscure playwright Václav Havel. Within a few years, however,
the region underwent an extraordinary democratic transformation. The
demise of the highly institutionalized and relatively prosperous German
Democratic Republic offers a particularly interesting point of reference.
There, late-blooming civic organizations, combined with images and
information from West German television and an unexpected and un-
controllable emigration crisis, brought the rule of the communist Social

24 Journal of Democracy

Unity Party to an end. The apparent strength and capacity of the Cuban
state notwithstanding, one of its weaknesses lies in the realm of emigra-
tion. The East European cases also suggest that there is a “tipping point”
at which the level of economic development, civic organization, and the
emergence of a political alternative coincide.

The cases of China and Vietnam offer another set of comparative
vantage points from which to analyze the Cuban experience. Those two
Asian countries share with Cuba the experience of intertwined nationalist
and communist revolutions that gained power after a civil war. Totali-
tarian regimes under charismatic leaders have given way to what some
have called (in the case of China) “responsive authoritarianism.”6 Both
countries have taken significant steps toward capitalism, while retain-
ing single-party regimes that coexist warily with rising middle classes
and emerging civil societies. This compares with a Cuban regime whose
economic reforms are still incipient. While Raúl Castro may not be Deng
Xiaoping, there is plenty of evidence (including a month-long study trip
to China that he took in 1997) that he is interested in the implementation
of Chinese-style economic reforms. How far the younger Castro is pre-
pared to go in that direction is unclear. The asymmetries between Cuba
and China are evident, and Raúl Castro is undoubtedly fearful lest condi-
tions for a Cuban Tiananmen develop. Whatever the case, if the Cuban
regime successfully navigates between the Scylla of immobility and the
Charybdis of upheaval, comparisons with these Asian experiences may
shed light on how a hegemonic party-state engages in economic reform
while maintaining firm political control.

How does the Cuban experience compare with other cases closer
to home, in Latin America? Certainly the Cold War framed the Cuban
Revolution and afforded it unique opportunites, but fidelismo always
had an idiosyncratic and highly personal quality which, in some ways,
differed only in degree from the caudillismo (or even extreme presiden-
tialism) found elsewhere in Latin America. The role of the military in
Cuba has striking intraregional parallels, as does Fidel Castro’s penchant
for using nationalism both to affirm identity and to direct attention away
from economic failures and mismanagement. The Cuban Revolution of
1959, like the Mexican Revolution of 1910, harnessed nationalism to a
revolutionary project. The effort to create a party-state was reinforced in
the Cuban case by a messianic vision and the adoption of a fully statist
strategy and elaborate system of controls, though with a similar network
of clients.

The strongest singularity of the Cuban case relative to Latin America
lies in the absence of political pluralism within the ruling coalition and the
concerted effort to destroy anything resembling an independent economy
or civil society. Might the Cuban state and polity become more like those
of its neighbors? The Cold War is over, and the United States plays a
much less hegemonic role in Western Hemispheric affairs than it did in

25Eusebio Mujal-León

earlier decades. This reality, combined with the physical passing of Fidel
Castro and the emergence of new Latin American populist movements
eager to construct “authoritarian democracies,” could provide additional
hints of the Cuban future. Only time will tell if Cuba will follow the path
blazed by Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party during
its period of hegemony, or the less institutionalized, semimilitary model
of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. What should not be discounted is
that a future Cuban elite might eventually try to flesh out a more “Latin
American” style of leadership, complete with limited pluralism, pervasive
clientelism, and semicontested elections.

The Fidelista Coalition

The Party and the army (or more precisely, the PCC and the FAR) have
long been the focus of power in Cuba—the interlocking and occasionally
interchangeable core of what can be termed the partido fidelista. Although
the PCC is the formal “vanguard” of society, it has for some time been
the weaker of the two partners. Despite a renewal of its cadres and an
increase in its role since the 1990s, the Party has not made administration
and management its forte. Its greatest effectiveness comes instead from its
work in ensuring ideological orthodoxy and control. The FAR is the heir
of the guerrilla movement that made the Revolution. After the collapse
of the Soviet Union, the armed forces assumed major responsibility for
implementing the Castro regime’s survival strategy. The FAR is not one
but rather several organizations, and its constituent parts will bear close
watching over the next few years. On the one hand, the FAR is a profes-
sional army that is highly regarded by the population. Since 1989, the
FAR has also run the Interior Ministry, whose image and resonance are
rather less benign. Officers of the FAR are also involved in the lucrative
joint-ventures sector. The most important of these well-placed soldiers is
General Julio Casas Regueiro, who is currently defense minister but who
used to direct a holding company which, along with the other FAR-run
enterprises, accounted for almost 90 percent of Cuba’s exports and 60
percent of its tourism earnings.

After nearly fifty years in power, the fidelista coalition is undergo-
ing realignment. This is not the first time there has been flux within the
leadership, but never before has the post-Castro era loomed so obviously
near. The inevitability of this generational change is underscored by the
septuagenarian status of those whom the 77-year-old Raúl Castro—he is
Fidel’s junior by almost five years—has named to top posts in the Council
of State and the newly appointed Standing Committee of the Politburo.

The Cuban power elite comprises several groups. One combines vet-
erans of the old insurgent days in the Sierra Maestra mountains along
the southeast coast with serving senior officers in the FAR. The former
imbued the Revolution with its original esprit, while the latter are closely

26 Journal of Democracy

aligned with their mentor and leader. Officers of the FAR have always
served in the top ranks of the party-state. Since Raúl Castro took over
the presidency, however, he has increased their number and influence.
Taken together, this group supports economic reforms, but does not
want political liberalization. The second group of “reformists” includes
technocrats and has support among the provincial Party secretaries,
whose careers date from the 1990s and who now make up almost a third
of the Politburo. The most touted “reformist” is Carlos Lage, a member
of the Politburo, vice-president of the Council of State, and executive
secretary of the Council of Ministers. The technocrats do not have much
of an independent power base, but Lage is well regarded within the PCC
and in the economic ministries. This group supports the implementation
of deeper and faster economic reforms and might eventually become
advocates of political liberalization. The last group consists of the “hard-
liners” within the ruling coalition. They favor tight limits on economic
reform and oppose any political opening. Their leading figure is José
Ramón Machado Ventura, vice-president of the Council of State and a
well-known advocate of communist orthodoxy.

Raulismo in Power

Raúl Castro has been at the center of power in Cuba since 1959, and
has played a crucial role in the consolidation of the Revolution. If Fidel
Castro was the magnetic force, the man of broad vision and intuitions,
then it was his brother who made things work. Castroism is the joint
product of siblings who have had their fair share of quarrels, but who
are joined by a loyalty that runs far deeper than ideology.7 Only when
they both pass from the scene will the Castro era truly have come to an
end. Raúl Castro is thus a pivotal, Janus-like figure linked both to the
past and future of the Cuban Revolution. While he cannot inherit the
full mantle of charismatic authority from his brother, he retains decisive
authority within the collegial leadership. At the same time, Raúl cannot
govern as Fidel did, largely ignoring the mundane questions of economic
performance and administrative challenges.

Over the past two years, Raúl has provided a clear sense of his priori-
ties. His speech of 26 July 2007 set the tone. In it, he spoke of the need to
“change concepts and methods which were appropriate at one point but
have been surpassed by life itself.” Just what the phrase “change concepts
and methods” means is, of course, subject to interpretation. By no stretch
of the imagination, however, does it signify any intention to jettison the
revolutionary project or engage in political liberalization. It does mean a
new emphasis on productivity and performance as well as paying much
greater attention to the institutionalization of regime structures.

The younger Castro is undoubtedly more serious than his brother about
institutions and, particularly, about the need to consolidate the authority

27Eusebio Mujal-León

and credibility of the Communist Party. Fidel paid lip service to this goal,
but his tendency toward micromanagement and improvisation generally
triumphed. Raúl exhibits a different leadership style. He is not prone to
lengthy speeches or to high-profile visibility. He has practiced a collective
style of leadership, calling on other comandantes or Machado Ventura to
be the public face of the regime and even bringing longtime rival Ramiro
Valdés into the Politburo. During the Sixth Central Committee Plenum
in April 2008, Raúl called on the Party to extend its presence outside the
workplace and into neighborhoods and mass organizations. In short, he
was telling the Party that it needed to become proactive in dealing with
citizen demands.

Another aspect of raulismo has been to emphasize administrative
reform and decentralization. In his July 2008 address to the National
Assembly, he promised to reorganize the central administration, reduc-
ing the number of agencies and redistributing their functions. Perhaps
inspired by recent Chinese initiatives at the local level, Raúl has also urged
greater decentralization so “local initiative can be effective and viable.”
The calls for increased productivity, efficiency, and discipline have been
other hallmarks of the raulista platform. His speeches are replete with
references to “systematic rigor, order, and discipline,” calls for “rationality
and efficiency,” and references to the need for “more organization, more
systematic and effective work.” Subsidies and entitlements, he declared,
have become “irrational and unsustainable.”8 Raúl has advocated open
“debate and criticism”—though only “if guided by sensible purposes and
views [that] are uttered with responsibility.”9

These remarks underscore that Cuba’s new president is no liberal.
At most, his comments mean that debate should take place within firm
boundaries. His 26 July 2007 speech unleashed a barrage of meetings
in workplaces and neighborhoods where citizens were asked to air their
grievances and problems, but the impact of these sessions was absorbed
within Party and mass organizations, and failed to generate much public
debate. The official daily, Granma, remains unreadable and uninforma-
tive. More open in identifying problems has been Juventud Rebelde (the
organ of the the PCC’s youth wing, the Union of Young Communists
or UJC), along with semiofficial outlets such as Temas and La Jiribilla,
though even the lively exchanges in their pages never stray too far from
the dominant canon.

There are signs of broader debate and willingness to discuss problems
more openly. The April 2008 congress of the National Union of Cuban
Writers and Artists featured sharp criticisms of cultural restrictions and
the educational system. Two months before that, wide circulation was
given to a video showing a student at the Universidad de Ciencias In-
formaticas challenging National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcón to
justify controls on Internet access and foreign travel as well as the dual-
currency system that pays people in Cuban pesos but forces them to buy

28 Journal of Democracy

basic goods with far costlier “convertible” pesos.10 What all this means
and where it is leading are not clear. More than ten years ago, after another
period of relative apertura (opening), Raúl Castro lambasted a number
of reformist intellectuals as “fifth columnists” and thereby ushered in a
new period of orthodoxy and retrenchment.11 Will the same thing hap-

pen again? The meetings and assemblies
leading up to the Sixth PCC Congress in
late 2009 will provide clear evidence of
how far intellectuals and reformist sectors
will be able to expand the boundaries of
intra-Party debate.

In the economic sphere, raulismo has
been about greater efficiency and in-
creased production. In the political arena,
the objective has been to prepare the
generational transition while maintaining
unity and discipline. Although Raúl occa-
sionally sounds more like a manager than
a politician, he is more aptly described

as a military professional for whom the FAR and PCC are functionally
equivalent organizations founded on discipline and unity. The regime’s
survival prospects will be much greater if the fidelista (and post-fidelista)
coalitions remain united, and if Raúl is able to “institutionalize” bound-
aries for containing intraregime debate. His more collegial style has not
prevented Raúl from placing his people in the top leadership ranks. If we
exclude Raúl and other members of the early revolutionary generation from
the count, FAR members now hold two of the six vice-presidencies of the
new elected Council of State and six of the two-dozen Politburo seats. The
group of young hard-liners, known as los talibanes, whom Fidel Castro
promoted in the late 1990s have lost much ground. UJC leaders Hassan
Pérez Casabona and Otto Rivero have been demoted, and Carlos Valenciaga,
Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, recently lost his seat on the Council of
State. Further changes in the government are likely to be announced when
the National Assembly meets for its December 2008 session.

So far, the scope and pace of economic reforms appear limited and
gradual enough to preserve broad consensus within the leadership. Who,
after all, will dispute the need to increase agricultural production and ef-
ficiency? But partial measures are unlikely to resolve the core problems of
the Cuban economy. Might advocates of deeper and farther-reaching re-
forms emerge? It is impossible to say, as the inner workings of elite circles
remain deliberately opaque. We may have received a clue when, in July
2008, Raúl Castro declared that “unanimity” was “usually fictitious.”12
Here the elder brother may be part of the explanation. At the time of the
handover, it was thought that a terminally ill Fidel would “fade away” as
in the song famously mentioned by Douglas MacArthur. But this has not

Cuba has been charac-
terized by an intrusive
state whose elites
have atomized society,
controlled and reorga-
nized it, and channeled
participation vertically
through a host of mass

29Eusebio Mujal-León

occurred. If anything, since mid-2008 the longtime máximo líder of the
Cuban Revolution has been unusually visible and voluble, issuing pointed
reflexiones via the pages (or sometimes just the webpages) of Granma. In
June, he declared: “I am not nor will I ever be the head of any faction or
group. No one can deduce, therefore, that there are struggles within the
Party.”13 The following weeks coincided with a slowdown in the pace of
reforms, while a pair of major July 2008 speeches featured Raúl Castro
asking for patience and emphasizing the “limited resources” at hand.
This was before hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated the island in late
August and early September, causing up to US$10 billion in damages
and adding greater urgency to economic reform.

We do not know if Fidel Castro’s “reflections” are merely the musings
of an old and crotchety former ruler, but even so, they probably strike
a sympathetic chord among the hard-liners within the leadership. Less
direct evidence of political effervescence may be found in the constant
references that Cuban leaders make to the vulnerabilities of the Revolu-
tion. It was Fidel who first prominently raised this issue in a November
2005 speech at the University of Havana:

Can the revolutionary process be [made] irreversible, or not? Which are
the ideas or the degree of conscience that would make the reversal of the
revolutionary process impossible? When those who were the forerunners,
the veterans, start disappearing and making room for new generations of
leaders, what will be done and how will it be accomplished? After all, we
have been witnesses to many errors, and we didn’t notice.14

Many others, including Raúl Castro, have continued to repeat the
questions, suggesting that they nag at the leadership.

If debates emerge prior to the Sixth Congress, they will probably focus
on the pace and substance of economic reform, administrative decentral-
ization, and the demands for greater debate “within socialism.” So far, we
have seen mostly hints of these debates, but they are undoubtedly taking
place among the top elite, within various think tanks, and between and
within assorted ministries. The most public contribution to the debate so
far came in the form of a document called “Cuba Needs a Participative and
Democratic Socialism” that appeared over the signatures of several Party
members whose standing and significance within the PCC are unclear.
Published online on 17 August 2008 at the Spanish-based kaosenlared.
net, the manifesto contains a stinging criticism of the Cuban status quo,
labeling it a “failed centralized and authoritarian” system. “The majority
of Cubans,” the document went on, “are frustrated, alienated and have
lost hope, and the new (unmotivated) generations do not feel the same
commitment as previous ones toward this ‘poor socialism without per-
spectives.’” This has created a “rare species of ‘revolutionary situation’
that could come apart without warning and whose evolution could be
capitalized on by the enemy.”15

30 Journal of Democracy

Cuba has been characterized by an intrusive state whose elites have
atomized society, controlled and reorganized it, and channeled par-
ticipation vertically through a host of mass organizations. This process
has eliminated political competition, destroyed economic society, and
rendered civil society weak and ineffective. Over the past decade, Cu-
ban society has not quite “resurrected” itself (in the evocative phrase of
Enrique Baloyra), but neither has it remained immobile.16 Multiple civic
networks and associations have developed, though it is by no means easy
to “disentangle” which are “oppositional, dissident, and non-oppositional
sectors and activities.”17 Few groups are independent. Most stand in some
relation to the state, even while seeking margins of autonomy from it.
Even the Catholic Church, probably the best-organized civic organization
on the island, affirms its political neutrality and has opted for negotiation,
if not accommodation, with the regime.18

At the same time, the Varela Project’s success (achieved despite sys-
tematic official harassment) at collecting more than 25,000 signatures
to petition for a national referendum to add political, civil, and property
rights to the constitution suggests that political contestation has grown. So
does the expanded role of the Federation of Latin American Rural Women
(FLAMUR)—founded in 1996—which has embarked on a campaign to
collect signatures for a petition against the dual currency. A modest but
noticeable increase in civil disobedience has taken place over the past
decade.19 Nonetheless, human rights groups and opposition organiza-
tions remain isolated, weak, and subject to constant harassment. They
confront daunting obstacles not only in making their views known but in
connecting with ordinary citizens. As Dagoberto Valdés has noted: “In
Cuba there are political opponents, there are dissidents, there are other
groups of an incipient civil society, but there is also . . . much civic and
political illiteracy that does not permit social and political actors to define
themselves and to focus on their own role.”20

The Challenges Ahead

There are obvious reasons why the state of public opinion in Cuba is
difficult to assess. A number of independent polls taken over the past
few years provide a partial glimpse, however. Gallup interviewed a thou-
sand Cubans in Havana and Santiago de Cuba in September 2006, just
after Fidel Castro fell ill. Only 26 percent of the respondents said that
they were satisfied with their freedom to choose what to do with their
lives (the average for Latin America as a whole was 79 percent). Cuba’s
healthcare and educational systems, by contrast, drew satisfaction scores
of 75 and 78 percent, respectively. Asked about the country’s leadership,
49 percent approved, 39 percent voiced disapproval, and 13 percent did
not answer.21 A Freedom House report based on nearly 180 in-depth
interviews carried out in five Cuban provinces in April 2008 presented

31Eusebio Mujal-León

a more nuanced and gloomier picture. The report found Cubans at once
disillusioned and apathetic; filled with a sense of powerlessness and a fear
of change; evidencing deep distrust of one another and the government;
and also apparently resigned to self-censorship. Few knew much about
dissident or opposition groups. Nor did respondents expect much in the
way of political change. With the exception of artists and intellectuals in
the group, few of the respondents expressed concern about the absence
of civil and political rights. Most respondents were critical of limits on
freedom of movement within the island and of restrictions on their abil-
ity to travel outside the country. Overall the report suggests that there is
substantial unhappiness among Cubans, but that it is accompanied by a
deep sense of resignation.22

For now, Raúl’s greatest challenge is economic—he must find a way
to jump-start the economy and satisfy pent-up demands generated by
nearly fifty years of fidelismo. Some of the measures announced so far
are cosmetic or psychological: They aim to raise morale by ending some
of the “absurd” restrictions (the word is Raúl’s) that weigh on Cubans
every day. Thus is it now permitted to buy cellphones, DVDs, motorcycles,
and household appliances. Moreover, all Cubans may now stay at their
island’s tourist and resort hotels—so long as they pay the full rate in hard
currency. Although such measures benefit only a select few who have
ready money, the changes send a signal of normalization. Still pending
are proposals to make exit visas cheaper and easier to obtain, to facilitate
foreign travel, and to allow freedom of movement within the island.

As to deeper structural problems, the focus of government efforts has
been on agriculture. Official figures state that between 1998 and 2007, the
amount of land under cultivation fell by a third. Cuba now imports nearly 85
percent of its food. Decree Laws 259 and 282 (approved in June and August
2008, respectively) now permit the distribution of state land to state farms,
cooperatives, and private individuals (private landowners control less than
a fifth of arable land yet account for almost three-fifths of Cuba’s annual
yield). It is far from evident that this legislation will make Cuban agriculture
more productive. And even if the law works as intended, agriculture is only
one part of the equation. In the coming months, we shall see how raulismo
addresses the problem of salaries and links these to increased productivity,
while also tackling the troubles inherent in a dual-currency system where
the 25-to-1 value advantage of convertible over ordinary pesos has created
stark inequalities based on access to dollars.

As difficult as the economic challenges may be, there are others of
equal, if not greater importance. The Cuban Revolution has always exuded
a sense of moral superiority. What many knew but would not admit is
now discussed publicly and with matter-of-fact candor: The system does
not work. A recent article in Cuba Socialista admitted as much when it
insisted that, even after fifty years of Revolution, the “transition to social-
ism” could take more than a century.23 The Revolution’s moral claims

32 Journal of Democracy

are corroded by the manifold inequalities that pervade daily life. Income
disparities are real and growing. There may not be political liberties,
but capitalism is alive and well in the joint ventures and on El Malecón,
Havana’s bustling seawall and associated promenade with its many hus-
tlers. The only difference is the absence of a legal system to contain or
regulate their activities. No one can live on his or her monthly salary,
and the result is that people regularly shirk their duties or steal what is
ostensibly public property. Cubans were once proud of the “social gains”
of the Revolution, but it now turns out that the health and educational
systems have deep-seated problems. There are not enough medicines or
doctors in the country, but the Cuban state earns hard cash for the 25,000
physicians it exports to Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.

Stability and Disenchantment

Paradox and contradiction characterize the current situation in Cuba.
Regime strength is coincident with fragility. Stability sits alongside growing
disenchantment, albeit not yet pressures for change. For now, Raúl Castro
is firmly entrenched in power. The regime may not excel at generating
economic growth or harnessing productive forces, but it has few rivals in
its resolute capacity to exert political and social control. The ubiquitous
Comités de Defensa de la Revolución have begun to fray, but civil society
and the private economy remain weak, dissidence and contestation are still
limited, and people fear change. There is no visible alternative to the estab-
lished order, but accumulated inefficiencies and incapacities have stifled
hope for a better future. This may not be a recipe for revolution, but Cuban
society has suffered an “anthropological lesion”—to borrow a phrase from
Santiago de Cuba’s retired Catholic archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu—that
exhortations to greater efficiency and discipline cannot cure.

Over the next few years, major changes will inevitably occur within
Cuba’s aging leadership. The new leaders will have neither the authority
nor the legitimacy of the Castro brothers, and it would not be surpris-
ing if the process of leadership succession were to exacerbate conflicts
within the elite. The armed forces are key; no ruling coalition can hope
to succeed without them. Once Raúl Castro and the other senior gener-
als pass from the scene, what will happen to the FAR? Will it gracefully
cede power to a new civilian Communist Party elite? Will significant
generational differences emerge within the officer corps? Will the FAR
leadership stake out reserved domains within whose boundaries it will
continue to exercise broad control? Will the protocapitalist groups that
have gestated within the FAR since the beginning of the “special period”
become the embryo of a future middle class?

We are in the antechamber of the post-Castro era, but there is no
crystal ball that allows us to predict the future. There are several pos-
sible scenarios.

33Eusebio Mujal-León

The first scenario involves a collapse of the regime. Such an outcome
is probable only if a major emigration crisis or natural disaster over-
whelms the capacity of the state and results in a massive breakdown of
public order.

The second scenario envisions a return to the mobilizational strategies
and orthodox policies of the past. Whether any successor to the brothers
Castro would have the authority and capacity to compel such a change
is doubtful.

Most probably the future lies somewhere between these first two sce-
narios. Thus a third scenario involves a posttotalitarian consolidation,
or perhaps an evolution toward some variant of authoritarianism. This
would include a relaxation of controls (but with continued harassment
of dissidents and opponents), expanded but gradual economic reforms,
and broader debate within the ruling elite. In the longer term, this option
could lead to the emergence of a middle class closely enmeshed with and
dependent upon a developmental state. Though China and Vietnam might
be examples in this regard, it should be noted that both countries are larger,
more self-sufficient, and less easily penetrated than Cuba. Even if it has
been isolated for the past fifty years, Cuban society has maintained many
links (familial, social, and psychological) with its neighbors, including the
sizeable émigré community in the United States. Key elements of scenario
number three would be the continued unity of the elite and its success
in addressing Cuba’s myriad economic problems. The existence of size-
able petroleum reserves in the Gulf of Mexico might help to solve some
of these problems, while also lessening dependence on Hugo Chávez.
Were Cuba to become awash in oil—a far from certain prospect given
that the size of the reserves has not even been independently confirmed
yet—it would almost certainly fall prey to the curse of the petrostate.24
The third scenario also assumes that Cuban society remains inert, largely
acquiescing to the restrictions imposed by the ruling elite.

The fourth and final scenario represents the democratic option. This
scenario assumes the development (if not necessarily the ascendance) of
a sizeable “reformist” sector within the regime that would be willing to
negotiate a new balance of power with the political opposition and the
representatives of mass social movements and independent civil society.
Though difficult to imagine under present circumstances, the probability
of this last scenario will increase once the post-Castro era definitively
arrives. In the absence of the Castro brothers, internecine conflicts within
the ruling coalition are far more likely. Fissiparous tendencies within the
military may also emerge, with more professional officers distancing
themselves from their more “political” or “entrepreneurial” counterparts.
A more organized and emboldened civil society, advancing from narrower
economic and social demands toward more explicitly political claims,
would provide a social base for mobilization and protest.

Just seven years ago, in May 2002, the Republic of Cuba celebrated

34 Journal of Democracy

its centennial. In its brief history, Cuba has experienced truncated sov-
ereignty, external dependency, corrupt and venal governments, and its
fair share of dictatorships. Only fleetingly, between 1940 and 1952, did
Cuba enjoy democracy. Adding to its troubles, over the past fifty years
Cuba has become a deeply fractured nation.

This history weighs heavily on the present. It is a legacy that can be
overcome only if Cubans rebuild their sense of community, recover their
voice, learn to tolerate difference and, in the process, reclaim their citi-
zenship. The process of national reconstruction and restoration will not
be easy. External actors (including Cubans living outside the island) can
surely contribute to this effort, but primary and ultimate responsibility
for success in this undertaking lies in the hands of Cubans within Cuba.
It is on their shoulders that a democratic future rests.


I would like to thank Tomas Bilbao, Dan Erikson, Eric Langenbacher, and Carlos Quijano as
well as the members of my seminar on “Cuba: Regime Change in Comparative Perspective”
at Georgetown University for their very useful comments and suggestions. Any mistakes
that remain are my responsibility.

1. Julia Sweig, “Fidel’s Final Victory,” Foreign Affairs 86 (January–February 2007):

2. Javier Corrales, “The Gatekeeper State: Limited Economic Reforms and Regime
Survival in Cuba, 1989–2002,” Latin American Research Review 39 (June 2004): 35–65.

3. Josep M. Colomer, “Watching Neighbors: The Cuban Model of Social Control,”
Cuban Studies 31 (2000): 118–38.

4. Eusebio Mujal-León and Joshua Busby, “Much Ado about Something? Regime Change
in Cuba,” Problems of Post-Communism, November–December 2001, 6–18.

5. Juan J. Linz, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain,” in Erik Allardt and Yrjö Littunen,
eds., Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems: Contributions to Comparative Political
Sociology (Helsinki: Westermarck Society, 1964), 291–341.

6. Robert Weller, “Responsive Authoritarianism,” in Bruce Gilley and Larry Diamond,
eds., Political Change in China: Comparisons with Taiwan (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner,
2008), 117–33.

7. Brian Latell, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

8. See

9. See

10. See There was
speculation that Alarcón had been “set up” by rivals in the leadership.

11. See his address to the March 1996 Central Committee Plenum in Granma, 27 March
1996. Julio Carranza Valdés (one of the academics who participated in the debates of the

35Eusebio Mujal-León

early 1990s and was dismissed from his position at the Centro de Estudios sobre América)
returned to the charge recently, affirming that “historic socialism” had failed because it had
not understood the importance of democratic values and intellectual freedom. “El Compro-
miso de la ciencia y la ciencia del compromiso,” Temas, January–March 2008, 143–54.

12. See

13. See In his reflexión
of 20 September 2008, Fidel Castro took a swipe at those (perhaps within the military) who
use “capitalist methods in their quest for revenues that permit them to administer resources
and pretend to be efficient.”

14. See

15. The manifesto is available in Spanish at

16. Enrique Baloyra, “Socialist Transitions and Prospects for Change in Cuba,” in
Enrique Baloyra and James Morris, eds., Conflict and Change in Cuba (Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 38.

17. Margaret Crahan and Ariel Armony, “Does Civil Society Exist in Cuba?” Available
at .

18. See the interview with Jaime Cardinal Ortega in Temas, January–March 2008, 125.
The retirements of Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu and Bishop José Siro from the dioceses
of Santiago de Cuba and Pinar del Rio, respectively, inclined the balance toward the more
“accommodationist” wing of the Catholic hierarchy.

19. For an excellent account, see Xavier Utset, “The Cuban Democracy Movement:
An Analytical Overview,” 16 June 2008. Available at
Utset%20Cuban%20Democracy%20Movement%20June%202008 .

20. See

21. Gallup’s Costa Rican affiliate, the Consultoria Interdisciplinaria en Desarrollo (CID),
conducted the poll. See

22. See

23. See Terry Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1997).

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