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Guatemala’s Presidential Race Heats Up Heading Into Runoff

Former Gen. Otto Perez Molina. Photo by Surizar via Flickr Creative Commons.

Guatemalans, seeking security as the country still grapples with pervasive violence after a decades-long civil war, gave a former military general a commanding lead in elections held Sunday, which will now go to a runoff.

Retired Army Gen. Otto Perez Molina was ahead after Sunday’s vote, where he received 36 percent of ballots cast, but he did not receive the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff in November. He will face the next leading contender, hotel owner and former congressman Manuel Baldizon, on Nov. 6. Baldizon also has promised to be tough on crime, and be an advocate for the poor and elderly.

The presidential race has had some unique twists. Sandra Torres, the wife of President Alvaro Colom, tried to get around a constitutional amendment barring close relatives of current presidents from running by divorcing him earlier this year, but Guatemalan courts denied her candidacy.

The election was the fourth since the country’s 36-year civil war, which ended with a peace agreement in 1996. At least 200,000 people died in the conflict.

Violence in Guatemala, a Central American country of 13.8 million people, has become more chaotic since the 1996 peace accords, said Nadia Sussman, who reports on Guatemala for GobalPost. She said the country has been a corridor for drugs and is also becoming a base for them with all of the gang activity and violence they bring.

Watch Sussman, Kara Andrade and Nicholas Wirtz’s GlobalPost report on Perez Molina:

“For your average Guatemalan, even taking the bus is a risk” because people might board the bus for extortion money and shoot the driver, Sussman said by phone from Guatemala City. Business owners told the reporting team they have to spend up to 5 percent of their income for private security.

Perez Molina has said he will bring security and fight corruption; his campaign symbol is an “iron fist.” Some voters, who would normally be uncomfortable voting for a former military leader, consider him their best bet to control crime.

Guatemalans also will be looking for their next leader to help them economically. Besides sugar, one of Guatemala’s major industries is tourism, which has taken a hit from the increasing violence and the global recession, said Wirtz.

“In some respects, Guatemala has an image problem that works against it digging itself out of its hole,” he said.

According to Andrade, who herself is Guatemalan, the country has a problem with basic infrastructure and services, but people often refuse to pay taxes to fund these areas because they don’t trust the state to spend the money on the right things.

“It’s not a failed state yet, but it’s in a state of decomposition,” she said.

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