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Ballots and Bullets in Guatemala

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This Sunday, Guatemalans will go to the polls in the fourth presidential election since 1996 peace accords ended that country's 30-year civil war, a conflict that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly indigenous campesinos caught in the struggle between a militarily-weak leftist insurgency and the ruthless scorched-earth tactics of a national army.

The likely winner of the election will be the man who represented that army during those accords, 60 year-old retired general Otto Pérez Molina. A recent poll by the Guatemala firm Borge y Asociados gave Pérez Molina 48.9 percent of the vote, nearly enough to avoid a November runoff ballot.

Pérez Molina's rise in Guatemalan politics says much about the unfulfilled promise of those 15 year-old accords, and about the vexing problems that still confront Central America's most populous country.

A 1973 graduate of Guatemala's military academy, Pérez Molina came of age in a country ruled by military dictators and where the military itself was divided between those who advocated a take-no-prisoners approach to prosecuting Guatemala's civil war and others who others who advocated a strategy of pacification and stabilization, combining development projects and military objectives while killing only as many rebels and suspected sympathizers as "needed" to be killed.

This is what passed for enlightenment during the civil war, and, though Pérez Molina allied himself with the latter camp, enlightenment proved to be a relative term.

By the summer of 1982, the country was under the rule of Efraín Ríos Montt, a former general turned born-again evangelical Christian who had seized power after the chaotic four-year reign of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García.

Pérez Molina was serving as a military commander in El Quiché, one of Guatemala's most heavily indigenous and war-wracked departments, when Ríos Montt launched what was dubbed Victoria (Victory) 82, a military offensive that the historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett has written led to "the period of most extreme violence committed in the name of counterinsurgency" during the war, and which was particularly furious in El Quiché's northern region.

By 1993, Pérez Molina had risen to become chief of staff of the army's intelligence wing, known as D-2, and it was in this capacity that he led a faction of the military that successfully opposed then-president Jorge Serrano Elías' attempt to seize dictatorial powers that same year. Another sector of the military, led by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, supported Serrano's self-coup.

The conflict caused deep enmity between the two groups which continues to color Guatemalan political life even today, as one side or the other vies for positions of power and influence within the Guatemalan state.

Pérez Molina subsequently served as the chief of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP or presidential general staff) of Serrano's successor, Ramiro de León Carpio, until 1995.

A kind of state within the state, the EMP was disbanded in 2003 due to its links to appalling human rights abuses, including the 1994 killing of Constitutional Court President Eduardo Epaminondas González Dubón while Pérez Molina was at its helm.

The group has also been linked to the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the 1998 beating death of Bishop Juan Gerardi two days after a group he headed published a report laying the vast majority of deaths during the country's civil war at the feet of the Guatemalan military.

Selected as head the of the Guatemalan delegation to the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, DC in 1998, Pérez Molina retired from the military in 2000 before forming the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) in February 2001.

An important backer of the 2004-2008 presidency of Óscar Berger, Pérez Molina narrowly lost the 2007 presidential elections to Álvaro Colom of the left-wing Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza.

As a politician whose symbol is a closed fist and whose slogan is mano dura (strong hand), Pérez Molina has sought, with success, to portray himself as a law-and-order candidate in a country that is threatening to drown in violence as at no time since the civil war. While to the north Mexico's homicide rate has been estimated at 26 per 100,000 by the Latin American academic body Flacso, Guatemala's numbers a staggering 53 per 100,000.

In addition to a long-standing problem with local maras (street gangs), Mexican cartels pushed south by President Felipe Calderón's militarized campaign against drug traffickers there now do battle with Guatemala's own criminal groups, some of whom have their roots in a military intelligence apparatus set up with U.S. aid during the country's internal armed conflict.

None of the former have made as much of an impression in Guatemala as Los Zetas.

Originally members of a Mexican army unit designed to combat drug trafficking, Los Zetas (named after a radio code for high-ranking officers) defected from the military in the late 1990s to become enforcers for the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel. They later abandoned their employers to become an international organized-crime entity in their own right, and in recent years have been reinforced by members of Los Kabiles, a special-operations unit of the Guatemalan army trained in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics.

Los Zetas announced their presence in Guatemala in spectacular fashion with the March 2008 killing of kingpin Juan "Juancho" José León Ardón and 10 other people in the eastern state of Zacapa.

They subsequently established a strong foothold in the country, but especially in the departments of El Petén and Alta Verapaz in the north, and Izabal in the east.

This past May, 27 farm workers were found massacred in El Petén, a crime blamed on Los Zetas. Subsequently the dismembered body of the prosecutor investigating the case was found in Alta Verapaz, Both departments have been subject to state of siege orders during the Colom presidency. Mass casualty shootouts in various parts of the country have become commonplace.

It is perhaps little wonder then that Guatemalans long for a commanding figure to take over the reins of this troubled land.

Pérez Molina has been helped along by the disqualification of his main opponent, Sandra Torres. Guatemala's First Lady and wife of the current president until her divorce in April, Torres' candidacy was ruled illegal by the country's Constitutional Court under Article 186 of Guatemala's constitution, which forbids family members of the president or vice-president from running for either of those positions.

The law, which also prohibits those who have seized power in a coup d'état from running, was ignored during the 2003 presidential candidacy of Efraín Ríos Montt.

The slickness and professionalism of Pérez Molina's campaign, along with those of protégées such as Guatemala City mayoral candidate Alejandro Sinibaldi, has stood in marked contrast to the hapless efforts of the Torres camp. The struggle of other candidates to make themselves heard in the face of conservative media empires that often refuse to even air their advertisements has also been an asset.

Despite his reinvention of himself as a political leader, though, allegations of human rights abuses during his time in the military - and connections to organized crime both during and since - have continued to dog Pérez Molina

In July of this year, the indigenous Guatemalan organization Waqib Kej sent a letter to the United Nationas accusing Pérez Molina of involvement in torture and genocide during his time in the army, while accusations of his alleged involvement in the disappearance of rebel commander Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in 1992 have never been satisfactorily explained.

Rubén Chanax Sontay, one of the chief witnesses for the investigation of the Bishop Gerardi killing, placed Pérez Molina in the company of Colonel Byron Lima Estrada on the night of Gerardi's slaying. Lima Estrada was subsequently convicted along with three other men of Gerardi's murder.

In addition, Pérez Molina has often been mentioned as one of the alleged more prominent members of El Sindicato, a clandestine network of current and former military officers often at odds with a similar entity, La Cofradia, originally domintaed by Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo. In March 2002, the U.S. government revoked the latter's travel visa under a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizing action against people who have allowed or conspired in drug trafficking.

For his part, Pérez Molina has always vigorously denied all these charges.

[Pérez Molina's nearest competitor in the presidential contest, Manuel Baldizón, a congressmen form El Petén, is also trailed by accusations of corruption and abuse of power.]

In the background of Pérez Molina's political ambitions, there has been Guatemala's own struggle to move on from its tortured past.

Many key provisions of Guatemala's peace accords were implemented half-heartedly, if at all.

A civilian intelligence office mandated to combat organized crime was not established until 2007, by which point criminal networks had spent a decade successfully inserting themselves into virtually every manifestation of the state. The national police force remains ineffectual and numerically small, currently numbering around 26,000 officers, while Guatemala's private security sector has swelled to 120,000. According to UNICEF, despite its lush and varied topography, malnutrition affects one in two Guatemalan children under five, the sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world.

Since 2007, the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body charged with investigating criminal organizations and exposing their relation to the state, has been operating with varying degrees of success. Until June 2010, CICIG was under the direction of Carlos Castresana, a Spanish magistrate experienced at prosecuting drug-related cases in Mexico. Castresana resigned last year, charging the Colom government was undermining CICIG's work, and the mantle of leadership was passed to Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, the former attorney general of Costa Rica.

After a string of successes, over the last year CICIG appeared to stumble, recently losing high-profile cases against former president Alfonso Portillo and former prison director and presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei.

Working alongside CICIG, however, Guatemala currently has perhaps its most capable and activist Attorney General in recent memory, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey.

A specialist in criminal law who helped to found the Instituto de Estudios Comparados de en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala, Paz y Paz replaced a lawyer accused of having links to organized crime (his appointment was later annulled).

If, as seems likely, Pérez Molina is inaugurated as president next year, what kind of Guatemala will he work to build?

Will he, as he has stated, work for law and order, an end to corruption and an economically vibrant nation? Or will the questions from his past prove a mere foreshadowing of a nation even more violent and corrupt than the one that now exists?

Only time will tell, of course, in this land that Pablo Neruda once called "the sweet waist of the Americas" and which Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo once referred to as "my sweet storm."

Guatemala is the land of eternal spring, and its people are still waiting for that spring to come.