Although it is increasingly recognised that violence, crime, and associated fear are challenging democratic governance in Latin America, less attention has been paid to the ways in which state responses to crime contribute to the problem. By analysing El Salvador as a case study, this article addresses three key interconnected issues in the debate. First, it explores the dynamic of violence. It then locates youth gangs as violent actors within this context. Finally, it addresses the state response to the growing phenomenon of youth gangs. It is argued that current strategies, dubbed Mano Dura - Iron Fist, employed by the Salvadoran government serve to reveal the fragility of the democratic project, exposing the underside of authoritarianism that remains key to Salvadoran political life in the transitional process from civil war to peace.