Guatemala presidential election is tinged with fear and pessimism

Guatemalan voters pick a president Sunday at a moment when deepening drug crime threatens the nation’s feeble justice system and doubts hang over both candidates.

Rampant violence by encroaching Mexican drug traffickers provides an ominous backdrop to the sharp-elbowed runoff between the front-runner, retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina, and congressman Manuel Baldizon, who came in a distant second in the initial round of voting in September.

Both men vow aggressive action. The rightist Perez Molina promises to use army troops to attack traffickers and says he will cut the murder rate in half, while the populist Baldizon has called for greater use of the death penalty.

Although Guatemala faces a long list of social ills, from dire poverty and inequality to weak public budgets, security remains topmost in voters’ minds.


Cross-border organized crime “is probably the No. 1 threat that the government faces over the next four to five years,” said Heather Berkman, Central America analyst for Eurasia Group in New York.

Perez Molina, 60, who commanded troops against guerrillas during Guatemala’s 35-year civil war, has led most polls by 8 to 10 percentage points.

But since the September voting, Baldizon, 41, has assembled a variety of backers, including the coalition led by outgoing President Alvaro Colom, a leftist who is barred by law from running again. That move could provide a boost among rural voters, a key sector.

Perez Molina, who lost to Colom in 2007, and his Patriot Party call for a mano dura, or a firm hand, against cartels and local street gangs — a catchphrase that resonates with many Guatemalans as killings soar and armed robberies abound.

Baldizon, whose party is called Lider, or “leader,” has offered a stream of populist proposals, including giving all workers an extra month’s bonus pay on top of the two they receive now.

Both men are weighed down by negatives that have gotten wide play on social media and the Internet.

Perez Molina has long faced accusations of war crimes against civilians during the conflict, which ended in 1996. Critics fear mano dura could spell a return to the repressive practices of right-wing governments and note that elements of the military are suspected of having links to crime.

Perez Molina denies the war crimes charges and says he has no plans to return to army rule. He also has denied reported ties to crime figures.

Meanwhile, suspicions of corruption and criminal links swirl around Baldizon and his political empire in the northern region of Peten, an area rife with drug trafficking.

Baldizon, a wealthy lawyer, is accused of using his clout as chairman of a congressional finance committee to funnel millions in public funds to nongovernmental groups under his control in Peten. He has denied wrongdoing.

Many analysts dismiss Baldizon’s campaign vows — he promised to take Guatemala’s soccer team to the World Cup — as demagoguery, and charge that he can be thuggish. A leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala in 2008 reported that “there is little substance to his politics.”

Baggage on both sides means lots of voters see the race as a choice between the less bad option.

“This isn’t an election that the best man wins,” said Miguel Castillo, a political analyst in Guatemala City, the capital.

The winner will face towering needs in trying to move toward a working democracy, 15 years after the war’s end.

Political violence has dimmed, but parties tend to be unstable and short-lived. Impunity reigns because many public institutions, especially within the justice system, are beset by corruption, scant resources and inadequate training. Proposals to raise more taxes run afoul of a highly conservative elite.

As drug traffickers expand their grip on corridors in the country’s north, many wonder if Guatemala’s government is strong enough to wage the fight.

“We are in a state that, if it’s not failed, is close,” political analyst Victor Galvez said, “and neither of the two is offering solutions that let us see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Salvador contributed to this report.