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Mano Dura

Mano Dura
The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador

A preeminent authority on El Salvador’s street gangs reports on three nongovernmental organizations that, advocating for human rights, have attempted to reform the country’s gang policy—only to be stifled by sweeping, politically popular Mano Dura (Iron Fist) laws.

January 2017
320 pages | 6 x 9 | Hardcover has a printed case, no dust jacket |

In 1992, at the end of a twelve-year civil war, El Salvador was poised for a transition to democracy. Yet, after longstanding dominance by a small oligarchy that continually used violence to repress popular resistance, El Salvador’s democracy has proven to be a fragile one, as social ills (poverty chief among them) have given rise to neighborhoods where gang activity now thrives. Mano Dura examines the ways in which the ruling ARENA party used gang violence to solidify political power in the hands of the elite—culminating in draconian “iron fist” antigang policies that undermine human rights while ultimately doing little to address the roots of gang membership.

Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork and policy analysis, Mano Dura examines the activities of three nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have advocated for more nuanced policies to eradicate gangs and the societal issues that are both a cause and an effect of gang proliferation. While other studies of street gangs have focused on relatively distant countries such as Colombia, Argentina, and Jamaica, Sonja Wolf’s research takes us to a country closer to the United States, where forced deportation has brought with it US gang culture. Charting the limited success of NGOs in influencing El Salvador’s security policies, the book brings to light key contextual aspects—including myopic media coverage and the ironic populist support for ARENA, despite the party’s protection of the elite at the expense of the greater society.

  • Acronyms
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Power, Politics, and Exclusion
  • 2. Mano Dura
  • 3. Creating Folk Devils
  • 4. Contesting Mano Dura
  • 5. Peer Rehabilitation and Empowerment
  • 6. Reason, Religion, and Loving Kindness
  • Conclusion
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

SONJA WOLFAguascalientes, MexicoWolf is a CONACYT research fellow with the Drug Policy Program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.


“Wolf utilizes her vast experience and research to provide a comprehensive account of gang violence and state policy in El Salvador. In her rich, qualitative analysis, Wolf does an excellent job of contextualizing contemporary crime control policy against a broader historical backdrop.”
Choice Reviews

“Well-researched, well-written and comprehensive; a measured piece of scholarship, robust and calibrated…It [takes] a quietly devastating approach, unspairing in its critique, unflinching in its analysis and unadorned in its appraisal. After working through these chapters, there are few stones left unturned.”
British Journal of Criminology

“[Wolf's] insights will help connect internal and external understandings of criminal group behavior, disabuse scholars and policymakers of their biased analyses, and, ultimately, unlock a vast new area of research.”
Latin American Research Review

“This book significantly contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of the implementation of draconian anti-gang policies in underdeveloped and politically transitional countries.”
Jose Miguel Cruz, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Florida International University, and author of Street Gangs in Central America

Mano Dura provides a new and elevated standard for future analysis of the gang phenomenon throughout El Salvador. Superb research.”
Thomas Bruneau, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Stanford University; author of Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America and Patriots for Profit: Contractors and the Military in U.S. National Security; and coeditor of The Routledge Handbook of Civil-Military Relations