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Ex-general leads presidential runoff in violent Guatemala

November 4, 2011

GUATEMALA CITY – Right-wing retired general Otto Pérez Molina looked set to win a presidential runoff in Guatemala on Sunday, promising a “strong hand” against the country’s growing drug violence.

Pérez Molina scored 55 percent, 10 points ahead of wealthy businessman Manuel Baldizón, in the latest polls on the race to succeed President Alvaro Colom in Central America’s most populous nation.

Rich in natural beauty and Mayan ruins but lying on major drug trafficking routes between South America and the United States, Guatemala is struggling to emerge from a 36-year civil war, which ended 15 years ago.

Brutal attacks from Mexico’s Zetas drug gang have joined lingering political violence in the nation of 14 million, where more than half the population lives in poverty.

Four years after narrowly losing to Colom, Perez, 61, focused his multi-million-dollar campaign for the Patriotic Party (PP) on creating jobs and cracking down on crime. He has even proposed using the army against drug traffickers.

Populist Baldizón, 41, from the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party, also plowed millions of dollars into his campaign, making promises from increasing the use of the death penalty to helping the soccer team make it to the World Cup.

Experts say the tough stance of both candidates underlines the concern of Guatemalans about how to improve security in a country with a murder rate of around 18 per day, with more than 40 percent of killings blamed on drug gangs.

Pérez, who represented the army in 1996 at the peace accord signing, has denied accusations that rights abuses took place under his command during the war, which left some 200,000 dead.

Baldizón has been criticized for his changing allegiances, after moving from the political left to right, and is fighting rumors that his party has received money from drug gangs in his northeastern region of Petén.

The new president, who will take over on January 14, faces multiple challenges.

Corruption from organized crime gangs is rife in the country bordering Mexico and across the region. According to the United Nations, 98 percent of crimes go unpunished in Guatemala.

The treasury is also bankrupt after right-wing opposition parties blocked government attempts at fiscal reform and the approval of 500 million dollars in loans.

Malnutrition affects 49 percent of minors and illiteracy affects some 30 percent of the population.

“The new government must call for unity in the nation, because the situation is very difficult, with a lack of solutions to overcome poverty and inequality, excessive violence and a public debt which keeps rising,” said political analyst Marco Antonio Barahona.

Current President Colom, who is limited to one term, managed to break a half century of domination by the ultra-liberal right but struggled to reform the country with limited means and a fragile majority.

His social democratic National Unity of Hope (UNE) party failed to present a candidate in the first round because his wife, Sandra Torres – who even divorced Colom in an attempt to legally run for office – was disqualified.

More than 7.3 million Guatemalans are eligible to vote on Sunday, after renewing members of Congress, mayors and town councilors in September’s first round.

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