New authoritarianism, militarism, and militarization in Central America

Over four decades, Central America's security agenda has moved from the optimism of the Framework Treaty on Democratic Security (1995) to the policies of “iron fist,” “super iron fist,” and now, the new forms of militarism and militarization.

By Elvira Cuadra Lira

English translation by Yenni Castro (Valestra Editorial)


In February 2020, El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, burst into parliament with a military detachment. Two years later, in February 2023, he inaugurated a mega-prison with a capacity for 40,000 people. Those two events marked the rise of his strategy of maintaining power: a combination of new authoritarianism, militarism, and militarization, which earned him high levels of popularity among the Salvadoran population.

Other countries in the region and even in Latin America are observing and imitating the so-called "Bukele model" as an alternative to dealing with severe problems of insecurity and violence. Honduras has also established a state of emergency, while in Guatemala, the outgoing government of Alejandro Giammattei has targeted journalists, prosecutors, and public officials investigating acts of corruption. In Nicaragua, the government imposed a police state since 2018 when the multitudinous and widespread protests began. During the last two years, it has "institutionalized" it by arranging the entire state apparatus according to a steady policy of surveillance and control over the population.

This bleak regional panorama is a combination of three features: a) new forms of authoritarianism cloaked under the formalities of democracy and the efficient use of communication technologies; b) militarism, to contain the demands of social actors and large majorities of the population under the pretext of curbing common crime and delinquency; and c) militarization, which builds discourses and messages to legitimize authoritarianisms and militaristic solutions. The result is the application of short-term coercive and punitive security policies. How did Central America reach this bleak scenario?

The 21st Century and the New Authoritarianisms in Central America

For Central Americans, the 21st century began full of hopes and expectations for a better future. The prolonged internal conflicts had finally ended; the winds of democracy were wafting, and the peace agreements augured a region of peace, democracy, and development. But now, before the end of the first quarter of the century, the shadow of past authoritarianism looms over all countries.

There are at least five authoritarian patterns present in the region: the concentration of power and the reinforcement of presidentialism; rupture of the balance and the independence among state powers, and the subordination to the executives; high levels of corruption, opacity of state management, and penetration of organized crime in state structures, and severe restrictions to human and citizens' rights. And last but not least, the resurgence of militarism and militarization, encouraging punitive approaches and “iron fist” [mano dura] solutions that do not differentiate between political dissidence, criminality, and the wave of forced displacement that traverses the isthmus.

These elements have created a scenario of uncertainty and bleak possibilities for the future, pushing thousands of Central Americans to leave their countries and head to the United States, fleeing economic hardship, political persecution, and violence in search of better opportunities.

Evolution of the Regional Security Agenda

Over four decades, Central America's security agenda has moved from the optimism of the Framework Treaty on Democratic Security (1995) to the policies of “iron fist,” “super iron fist,” and now, the new forms of militarism and militarization.

Just after the end of the internal conflicts in Nicaragua (1990), El Salvador (1992), and Guatemala (1996), in the context of the democratization processes and the reactivation of the Central American Integration System (SICA, by its Spanish acronym), the agenda focused on separating military and police functions, redefining the relationship between civilian authorities and military institutions to prevent their previous decades pre-eminence, and the creation of police forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Chart 1: Evolution of the security agenda in Central America. 1990-2017

Source: author's work.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the relevant aspects were the processes of modernization and professionalization of the armed forces, the resizing of military forces and budgets, and their incursion into so-called non-traditional missions.

Meanwhile, with scenarios of high levels of violence and insecurity, especially in the northern countries of the region, the adoption of "iron fist" and "super iron fist" policies began, which included the definition of new dimensions in the forces and budgets for police institutions, reorganization and redefinition of functions, and the creation of regional collaboration mechanisms. The weakness of the recently created police forces resulted in the involvement of military institutions in citizen security. Around the same time, Central American governments adopted the Central American Security Strategy (2007), an instrument considered critical to face threats and risks such as organized crime and transnational drug trafficking.

Between 2010 and 2017, the agenda experienced a turnaround when, despite the decline in the military's public protagonism in previous decades, they began to occupy civilian public positions. That was the case of two retired military officers and former army chiefs: Omar Halleslevens, vice president of Nicaragua (2012-2017) and Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala (2012-2015). The iron fist policies were sustained during that time, while prevention and community policing approaches were implemented.

Prevailing militarisms

In the past, the relationship between political processes and militarism has been key. But if it was once thought that authoritarian and militaristic approaches came from the armed forces, it is now clear that they are part of the political-ideological framework of the groups in power, especially civilian rulers.

The overlapping of political power and the military, police, and justice forces plays a primordial role in current authoritarian projects, as was demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic when presidents appeared flanked by military and police chiefs. More recently, almost all countries have modified the legal frameworks of the defense and security sectors to give pre-eminence to the armed forces and punitive security measures and to increase the presence of military and police in public positions of a civilian nature, while imposing states of exception for prolonged periods, thus seriously limiting the exercise of fundamental citizens' rights.

These conditions pose important and urgent challenges for Central America and its future. These include rethinking peace, democracy, and security in light of the new times and seeking a significant change in approaches and perspectives on security, the State, the armed forces, and the police forces. Furthermore, to adopt and strengthen public security policies from a perspective of regional and preventive democratic management and respect for human rights and, equally important, to promote the generation of knowledge and dialogues with a regional perspective.

About the author

Elvira Cuadra Lira is a Nicaraguan sociologist, director of the Center for Transdisciplinary Studies of Central America (CETCAM, by its Spanish acronym).

This text is a lecture presented at the Workshop " Violent Legacies, Social Movements, Uncertain Futures", held in Costa Rica, February 14-16, 2024.

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