A strongman or caudillo (“chief”) is a dictator, usually the head of the army, who comes to power by military force, outlaws dissent, and jails or kills opponents.
Central America has had many strongmen. Some of them have been supported by the United States with arms, military training, and financial aid.
In Nicaragua, the strongman was Anastasio Somoza (1896-1956), who ran the country, with U.S. help, from 1936 until his death. He was succeeded by his son Luis Somoza Debayle (1922-1967), who was in turn succeeded by Luis’s brother Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980).
In Panama, the strongman was Omar Torrijos Herrera (1929-1981), who ruled from 1968. Manuel Noriega (1934–) became the strongman after his death.
In El Salvador and Guatemala things were different. The army was almost always in charge, but the general at the head of the army often changed, as officers struggled for power. Sometimes a junta prevailed: a small group of military officers ruling jointly.
The military served the interests of the wealthiest families and of U.S. investors. The poor remained disenfranchised, without political power.