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Otto Perez Molina, Former General, Wins Guatemala Presidential Elections

Otto Perez Molina

By SONIA PEREZ D.   11/ 7/11 11:24 AM ET   AP

GUATEMALA CITY -- In the end, Guatemala's electoral tradition and weariness with crime trumped rising enthusiasm for a youthful populist.

Guatemalans once again have elected the presidential candidate who lost the previous election, something they have done since democracy returned to the Central American country in 1986.

Retired general and former intelligence director Otto Perez Molina of the conservative Patriotic Party won an easy and early victory on Sunday in a runoff against tycoon-turned-political populist Manuel Baldizon of the Democratic Freedom Revival party. Perez won 54 to 46 percent.

Voters were drawn to Perez's "iron-fist" approach to rampant crime in a country overrun by gangs and Mexican drug cartels and with one of the highest murder rates in the world. President Alvaro Colom had to send the military to various parts of the country in the last six months to regain control from the drug gangs.

"The first order of business will be to lower the levels of violence and insecurity that we're living, and work with congress to improve the federal budget," Perez said upon his victory, touching on the country's other major problem.

Guatemala has one of lowest tax rates in the world, raising little money for schools, roads or other improvements that would help bring the country out of severe poverty. More than half of Guatemala's 14 million people live below the poverty line. The establishment traditionally has fought hard against raising taxes.

Perez had led throughout, and while Baldizon made gains, it was Perez who surged in the final days.

"At the end of the campaign, Otto Perez began to appeal to the idea of continuity and stability, while Baldizon tried to appear new and creative," said Renso Rosal, political analyst with the University Rafael Landivar. "That doesn't sit well with a conservative society like Guatemala."

Perez, 61, is the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala since the end of brutal military rule 25 years ago.

While that concerns some international groups, Guatemala has a young population. Many don't remember the 36-year war or its 200,000 dead, the vast majority of whom were Mayan and victims of army, police and paramilitary.

Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide. He was never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.

"They talk a lot about the past, but there has been no case against him," said Perez supporter Daniel Rustrian, 20, who was voting for the first time. "I'm not saying there wasn't genocide, but no one has demonstrated anything against him."

Perez, who takes office Jan. 14, narrowly lost four years ago to Colom, who cannot run for re-election. That tradition bodes well for Baldizon, 41, who barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago.

"There are two winners, no losers," said Alberto de Aregon of the political firm of Aregon and Associates.

Baldizon made some promises considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup. He also promised to give workers an extra month's salary a year, reinstate the death penalty and televise executions.

Both candidates lean to the right. The center-left party of Colom failed to field a candidate.

Perez made his military career as an intelligence specialist, one of the most influential and powerful sections of the army. According to declassified U.S. documents released by the National Security Archive research organization, Perez studied in 1985 in the U.S. military's School of the Americas. He also took classes at and led the school for the elite commandos known as "kaibiles," a force linked to massacres of peasants during the war.

He also is known as the general who stood behind the constitutional court in 1993 when President Jorge Serrano tried to dissolve Congress and the constitution. The lack of army backing for his power-grab forced Serrano to leave the country.

Perez was appointed head of Guatemala's equivalent of the Secret Service for Ramiro de Leon Carpio, a human rights ombudsman chosen by Guatemala's legislature in 1993 to serve out the presidential term after Serrano fled.

Baldizon on Sunday urged fellow Guatemalans to vote for a new face and reject a candidate with "blood on his hands" from his military career. Perez in turn charged Baldizon with giving handouts in exchange for votes.

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Filed by Eline Gordts  |