GUATEMALA CITY – Retired general Otto Pérez Molina claimed victory in Guatemala’s presidential runoff election Sunday, calling for unity in the desperately poor and violent Central American nation.
“I thank all Guatemalans who trusted in me,” the white-haired ex-general said on local radio Sonora, as almost 90 percent of votes gave him a lead of 11 points over his nearest rival, populist businessman Manuel Baldizón.
“I call on all Guatemalans who didn’t vote for Otto Pérez to unite to work together for the next four years,” said the first military man set to lead Guatemala since the end of military rule 25 years ago.
Pérez, 61, won 55.2 percent against 44.8 percent for Baldizón, 41, according to 87.5 percent of the vote counted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, just hours after the close.
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.
“We’re going to fight very hard to bring peace, security, work opportunities and rural development,” Pérez said Sunday.
Amid a typically tense electoral climate, the two main candidates traded insults Sunday, with Perez accusing Baldizón of making offers of roofing and food in exchange for votes, and Baldizón repeating accusations of rights violations under Pérez during the civil war.
But Pérez was set late Sunday to take over from center left President Alvaro Colom on January 14, after losing to him in a runoff last time around.
Colom, who is limited to a single term, managed to break a half-century of domination by the hard right but then struggled to reform the Central American nation with limited means and a fragile majority.
Around 98 percent of crimes go unpunished in Guatemala, according to the United Nations, while malnutrition affects 49 percent of minors and 30 percent of the population is illiterate.
The figures are worse in isolated rural areas where the indigenous Maya language is spoken.
Pérez and Baldizón spent $22.5 million and $13.7 million respectively on campaigning for the September first round — in a country where two million people survive on less than a dollar a day.
Colom’s National Unity of Hope (UNE) party failed to present a candidate because his wife, Sandra Torres – who filed for divorce to try to run for office legally – was disqualified.
Four years after narrowly losing to Colom, Pérez focused his campaign for the Patriotic Party (PP) on creating jobs and cracking down on crime, proposing to use the army against drug traffickers.
Baldizon, from the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party, promised to take the national soccer team to the World Cup and to increase use of the death penalty, including on television.
Experts say the tough stance of both candidates underlined concerns about security in a country with a murder rate of around 18 per day, with more than 40 percent of killings blamed on drug gangs.
Human rights observers expressed concern about the “most violent” election cycle in recent history, with 43 dead in campaign-related killings, and dozens of death threats against candidates and voters.
Pérez – who represented the army to sign peace accords to end the civil war in 1996 – has denied accusations that rights abuses took place under his command during the war, in which some 200,000 people are believed to have died or disappeared.
Baldizón fought rumors that his party received money from drug gangs in his northeastern region of Petén, near the Mexican border.
For the first time, a woman was set to become Guatemala’s vice president, with Roxana Baldetti, 49, standing alongside Pérez.