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Americas

Crime fears colour Guatemala's presidential vote

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-09-11

Former General Otto Perez is widely expected to win Sunday's presidential election in Guatemala. Perez is ahead in the early counting and, if elected, he'll face considerable pressure to crack down on the country's surging crime rates.

REUTERS - Guatemalans anxious for relief from out-of-control crime lined up to vote for a new president on Sunday with the leading candidates promising to crack down on gangs and drug cartels terrorizing the country.

A 60-year-old retired general, Otto Perez, is way ahead in polls after the ruling center-leftist party failed to field a candidate but he may fall short of the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a November run-off.

No presidential hopeful in the coffee- and sugar-exporting nation has won in the first round since Guatemala returned to democracy in 1986 after decades of military rule.

Campaigning focused on Guatemala's losing battle against street gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking cartels moving South American cocaine up to the United States.

About a dozen people are murdered every day in the country of 14.7 million people, smaller than the state of Florida. The run-up to the election, which will also appoint lawmakers and mayors, has been marked by violence with more than 30 political murders since the start of the year, according to the human rights ombudsman. One former mayoral candidate is in jail accused of killing two rivals.

"There was a lot more tension this year," said Eugenia Morales, 70, out to vote early in the morning when polls opened. "The insecurity and violence is worse than ever."

A line at the school in the old center of Guatemala City, where she was casting her ballot, snaked around the block, bolstering electoral officials' hopes for a high turnout given
a record 7.3 million registered voters.

Perez's main competitor is Manuel Baldizon, a well-off hotel owner and former congressman who has only surged in the polls since August when President Alvaro Colom's wife, Sandra Torres, was forced to pull out of the race.

Colom is barred from running for re-election and a law from Guatemala's era of military dictatorships bans close relatives from seeking office. Several courts ruled against Torres' bid even after she divorced her husband in a bid to skirt the
rules.

Both Perez and Baldizon, who has a populist platform to help the elderly and the poor, say they plan to increase security spending.

The brutal Zetas cartel from Mexico is accused of massacres and beheadings in rural areas along its lucrative smuggling routes and street gangs wreak havoc in towns and cities.

DRUG MONEY FUNDING CAMPAIGNS?

With the country flush with drug money, observers worry illicit funds flowed into campaign coffers, since this year's election season was the most expensive in Guatemala's history.

Perez wants to hire 10,000 new police and 2,500 soldiers while Baldizon has suggested creating a national guard and supports the death penalty.

But deploying the military to the streets -- a model used by neighboring Mexico against the drug cartels -- has different implications in Guatemala, where the army committed hundreds of atrocities during the 1960-96 civil war.

Perez commanded troops during the war and also served as the head of the military intelligence unit that engineered shadowy assassinations of political rivals. But he points to his role signing the 1996 peace accords with leftist guerrillas as proof that he is a pragmatist.

Some voters, who still have memories of the war, are not convinced.

"Soldiers are not trained to govern," said 75-year-old Eduardo Higueros, also at the crowded voting station.

Higueros said he was concerned that none of the field of 10 presidential candidates have said how they will pay to fight crime or improve Guatemala's stretched government finances.

Last month, Standard & Poor's put Guatemala's credit rating on negative watch due to a rising deficit, expected to top 3 percent of gross domestic product next year, and a paltry tax take, among the lowest of all the countries the agency rates.

The president's plans to crack down on tax evasion were blocked by the powerful business elite.

Colom took on more debt to fund cash and food handouts to the neediest but critics say there were few structural changes to help over half the population living in poverty.

"If there is no security there are no jobs because businesses are robbed all the time. The (criminals) kill whoever they want," said 52-year-old merchant David Martinez.
"All we want is to work in peace."

Date created : 2011-09-11

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