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Guatemala on Track for a Runoff

Traditional politicians appear likely to face each other in second round of presidential vote. Ex-dictator accused of genocide trails.

November 10, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — Two traditional politicians appeared headed for a runoff after Guatemala's presidential election Sunday as preliminary results showed voters rejecting a former dictator accused of genocide.

Oscar Berger, 57, a conservative former Guatemala City mayor backed by some of the country's most powerful businessmen, was ahead in the polls. In second place was Alvaro Colom, 51, a moderate who once served as vice minister of economics. Exit polls by local media and initial returns with 7% of the vote counted showed them heading to a runoff in December.

Retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, 77, whose dictatorship from 1982 to 1983 during the middle of Guatemala's civil war was marked by massacres that left tens of thousands dead, was trailing in third place in the election to replace outgoing President Alfonso Portillo.

Despite fears of violence, Guatemalans turned out in droves -- election officials were predicting near-record participation -- and voted in relative calm. In the most serious incident, two women were trampled to death in a rural town when voters tried to rush into a crowded voting station. An aide to Colom was shot and wounded, apparently during a robbery. In some areas where there were long waits or problems with election rolls, frustrated voters burned ballot boxes.

Voting was monitored by a veritable army of national and international observers, about 10,000 volunteers from groups such as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center. "What we have seen until now has not stopped people from voting," said Valentin Paniagua, chief of the OAS mission.

Sunday's election was only the second since peace accords were signed in 1996, ending Central America's most brutal civil war, with an estimated 200,000 people killed during 36 years. Since then, the nation has struggled to heal its wounds, with the government failing to implement many terms of the accords, including one calling for restitution to war crimes victims.

Sunday's election meant different things to different people.

For the international community, the vote was a referendum on the country's continuing struggle with human rights abuses represented by Rios Montt. The former evangelical minister is facing civil trial, accused of violently repressing the indigenous population.

The State Department announced that it would be difficult to work with Rios Montt as president, though President Reagan expressed support for him during his dictatorship.

"Getting rid of Rios Montt would be a relief, but it won't solve the human rights problems," said one observer.

For many Guatemalans, however, the vote was more about troubles in the here and now. Under Rios Montt, president of the Congress and leader of the ruling political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, drug trafficking has soared. Crime is up. Dozens of party members have been accused of corruption.

For both international observers and Guatemalan voters, however, the balloting was a test of the country's democracy. The campaign season has been one of the most violent in memory. Local human rights groups have documented dozens of slayings of journalists, politicians and human rights activists since campaigning began in May.

After the Supreme Court provisionally ruled in July that Rios Montt was ineligible to run because of a constitutional ban preventing former dictators from being candidates, he was blamed for instigating a two-day riot in the capital.

"For Guatemalans, these are very critical elections in terms of trying to move forward in the consolidation of democracy," said Adriana Beltran, the Guatemala specialist for the Washington Office on Latin America, a left-leaning advocacy group.

Guatemala's continuing divisions were evident Sunday in San Juan Comalapa, a small, mostly indigenous town about 50 miles northwest of Guatemala City. Some of the worst massacres recorded under Rios Montt's rule took place here and in the villages lying in the pine-covered hills and fields of rustling corn that circle the town.

The region was a battleground that pitted leftist guerrillas against the Guatemalan army and local militias known as Civil Defense Patrols. All sides committed atrocities, though a U.N. report blamed the military for most of the deaths in the war.

On Sunday, thousands turned out to vote. Many traveled more than two hours by bus to join long lines that snaked around the town's two-story concrete municipal auditorium. Marimba music plinked on worn speakers, and farmers hawked strawberries and watermelons on blankets in the street.

Waiting to vote were Maya women in woven blouses of bright colors and farmhands in dirty boots.

And there were people like Efrain Patzan, who shook his head in disgust when asked about Rios Montt: "Everywhere around here, there are people who are still in pain from those massacres. We don't want a return to that time."

But just a few yards away stood Pedro Ajuchan, a 74-year-old farmer who was planning to vote for "the general," as he is universally known. "We need order. We need justice. We need to put the thieves in jail," he said. "It's like a father in a house. If he's weak, his kids misbehave. But with a belt in his hand, the kids do as they're told."

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