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Guatemala's shadowy presidential race

Dirty tricks, a vulgar innuendo and the dark influence of drug funds combine to cast a pall over the campaign.

July 31, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

EL ASINTAL, GUATEMALA — In a presidential race already tinged with foul language, accusations of murder and the dark shadow of drug money, a suspected campaign dirty trick doesn't get many people excited.

When front-runner Alvaro Colom arrived in this town in western Guatemala, the plaza in the center of town had gone dark. Coincidence? Perhaps, but cutting off the power and rendering an opponent's sound system inoperable is a common campaign tactic.

"The things we've been through," said campaign official Fernando Barillas, shaking his head. A generator was procured, and the rally went off without a hitch.

Colom, a veteran centrist politico, is the favorite in the Sept. 9 election, according to most polls and observers. But with as many as 19 men and women on the ballot, a clear victory for any candidate is far from likely.

If no candidate wins an outright majority, a second round of balloting will be scheduled for Nov. 4.

Most voters doubt that any of the candidates is up to the challenge of running an impoverished, overpopulated country suffering from a terrifying crime wave and a collapse of its criminal justice system, said Victor Galvez, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, a university here. The breakdown of law and order claimed the lives of three Salvadoran lawmakers in February -- and the Guatemalan police officers charged in their deaths were slain while in custody.

"There hasn't been a lot of enthusiasm in this election," Galvez said. Most polls here list about a third of voters as still undecided. "The electorate is tremendously skeptical."

Colom is a low-key 56-year-old engineer and businessman who finished second to winner Oscar Berger in the 2003 presidential election. Under attack from many of the candidates trailing him in the polls, he struck back in June with a startling obscenity.

"My opponents are idiots," Colom told reporters in June, using a vulgar Spanish synonym for "idiots" that also means pubic hair. "They spend all their time photocopying my plans."

In an interview with The Times, Colom clarified his remarks.

"When I called them idiots, I wasn't referring to all of my opponents, only the ones that have attacked me," he said. "And they are the only ones that were offended."

Colom's chief nemesis has been the man running second in the polls, retired army Gen. Otto Perez Molina.

Perez Molina has taken to calling Colom a "thief," citing an incident that doomed Colom's 2003 candidacy: a check that appeared to show Colom was channeling government money to his campaign. Colom was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

"There have been clear signs" of corruption in the Colom campaign, Perez Molina said in an interview. "These things can't be ignored."

Perez Molina, 56, graduated from Guatemala's military academy in the early '70s and rose through the ranks of the army during its war against rebels in the 1980s, a conflict in which the military committed numerous atrocities.

This year, Guatemalan newspapers revealed that an upcoming book by U.S. writer Francisco Goldman would accuse Perez Molina of orchestrating the 1998 killing of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, who ran a Catholic human rights office in Guatemala. Molina has strongly denied the charges, saying he was out of the country at the time.

Supporters point to Perez Molina's credentials as a military reformer: In 1993, he actively resisted a move by President Jorge Serrano Elias to dissolve Congress and suspend constitutional guarantees.

Still, in this campaign, the former general is cultivating a hard-line image. The symbol of his Patriot Party is a raised fist and the motto "Vote with a Firm Hand" -- in Spanish, "mano dura" is often associated with authoritarian policies.

"The government has failed to provide for the security and prosperity of its inhabitants," Perez Molina said in an interview. "The state has been captured by organized crime and drug traffickers, by corruption and injustice."

Perez Molina says he will apply his get-tough policy not only against drug traffickers and gang members, but also against businesses that avoid paying taxes. In television ads, he shakes his mano dura at the camera as he promises to fight corruption.

But for many, the idea of a military man running the country, especially one who once led the nation's feared army intelligence unit, is difficult to stomach.

In a thinly veiled reference to Perez Molina, Colom told a crowd of about 1,000 people in El Asintal: "In this election, Guatemala will decide whether we return to a past of darkness, to the violent past."

As if to draw the sharpest possible contrast with his opponent, the symbol of Colom's National Unity for Hope (known by the initials UNE in Spanish) is two hands drawn together to form the shape of a dove.

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