San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hardliners lead Guatemalan presidential bid

In all of Latin America, Guatemala could make a good claim for having the most violent crime, most corruption, fewest criminal convictions, highest infant mortality rates, lowest education levels and highest levels of malnutrition. These are more superlatives than this small country needs, so it’s no surprise that voters are expecting a lot from the winner of upcoming elections in September.

In six months, seven million Guatemalans will select a president to succeed Álvaro Colom, who was elected in a runoff in 2007. In his four-year term leading the social-democratic National Unity of Hope (UNE), Colom has failed to resolve the nation’s escalating problems, despite introducing a host of social programs never seen before in Guatemala.

Elections here have always been lively, but the process of finding a successor to Colom promises to be particularly sui generis. The lineup of possible candidates includes former rightist president Álvaro Arzú, Zury Ríos – daughter of 1980s dictator Efraín Ríos Montt – pro-death-penalty congressman Manuel Baldizón, evangelical pastor Harold Caballeros and university founder and mathematician Eduardo Suger.

Of that group, the two frontrunners are Sandra Torres, who has ties to the leftist political movement that sprung from guerrilla fighters during Guatemala’s bloody 36-year civil war, and Otto Pérez Molina, a former military general who led the government’s fight against the guerrillas.

Wife of current President Colom, Torres not only faces cultural obstacles in this heavily machista society, but she must also jump a constitutional hurdle to candidacy.  Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution prohibits a president’s relatives “within four degrees of consanguinity and second-degree in-laws” from running for office to replace him or her.

Opposition groups say this rules Torres out. Torres, however, has vowed to continue the campaign. On March 11, the presidential couple took an unprecedented step in Latin American political campaigning and filed for divorce. If a court grants that divorce, Torres will have circumvented the constitutional roadblock.

Last week, shortly after declaring her intention to enter the race before a crowd gathered in a poor suburb of Guatemala City, Torres emphatically defended her “legitimate, political and human right” to candidacy in an interview with CNN.

Supported primarily by the rural poor, Torres says she is responding to a popular demand to protect social programs she implemented with her husband through her Counsel of Social Cohesion. If successful, Torres would become the second woman in Latin America to succeed her husband in presidency, after Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007.

The Torres bandwagon started rolling with an 11 percent poll rating. But Pérez Molina, of the Patriot Party, is well ahead, with support of 43 percent of polled voters. Pérez Molina’s 2007 campaign based on “la mano dura,” or iron fist against crime, nearly won him that year’s election. His continued promise to bring order to Guatemala through a hardline approach is being welcomed again by many, especially the urban middle class.

However, Pérez Molina’s human rights record and his involvement in Guatemala’s civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 were killed or disappeared, worry some observers. Trained initially at the U.S. military’s School of the Americas, he rose to command Guatemala’s military intelligence wing, known as G2, and later headed a covert branch of the Presidential General Staff, or EMP. Pérez Molina’s iron fist seems to have been loosely concealed by a velvet glove, and some of his detractors have accused him of orchestrating disappearances, executions, torture, and massacres.

Currently there are two pending high profile cases against him. One was filed by Jennifer Harbury, a U.S. citizen who believes Pérez Molina ordered the 1992 disappearance and torture of her husband, Efraín Bámaca, who was a guerrilla fighter. The second alleges he was complicit in the murder of Archbishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998, days after Gerardi published a detailed report exposing atrocities committed by the military during the war.

Pérez Molina denies all charges and points to the key role he played in promoting democracy as the army’s representative to the signing of peace accords that ended the civil war in 1996.

Mario Polanco is the man in charge of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), which investigates cases of disappearances both during and after the war. His view on Pérez Molina is clear: “Everyone knows the generals have blood on their hands.”

Yet it seems that Patriot Party members’ military background may work in their favor as Guatemalans decide their democratic future. According to political analyst Fernando Carrera, more than 60 percent of the population supports the army. And if remilitarizing Guatemala’s institutions will bring order, than “people will think, ‘So what, it works’,” says Carrera.

The fact that in this Catholic country more than 40 percent of the population backs Pérez Molina, even though he is implicated in the murder of a Catholic archbishop, shows how desperate people are to end the violence, whatever the cost.

Violence has brought Guatemala international notoriety. During a visit here last week with Central American heads of state, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concerns about Guatemala’s rising crime rates and rampant impunity. He pledged $10 million to support a U.N. peace-building fund.

But reversing Guatemala’s downward spiral isn’t going to be easy. Judge Carlos Castresana, head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, a commission set up by the U.N. and Guatemala in 2007 to purge and reform the hyper-corrupt judicial system, quit in exasperation after three years.

According to the U.S. State Department, “entire regions of Guatemala” are under control of drug gangs and cartels.

Guatemala has another superlative on its list: its president takes one of the highest salaries of any elected leader in the world. Distribution of wealth certainly hasn’t been a priority under any recent administration. It has also become so violent that before boarding a bus, passenger can buy insurance against being robbed and shot on the ride.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that tough talk about law-and-order has many residents seeing Pérez Molina’s iron fist as the only way out.

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