Guatemalan presidential candidates, from left, Sandra Torres, Otto Perez… (Saul Martinez / European…)
Reporting from Guatemala City — Plagued by Mexican drug cartels that have steadily eroded the authority of the national government, Guatemala faces a presidential election in a few weeks that pits a former military officer against a former first lady, but offers little solution to epic problems.
For the Record, 1:45 p.m., July 28:
In an earlier version of this article, a production error caused several names to be changed incorrectly. The article gave the name of a political scientist as Niguel Castile. His name is Miguel Castillo. The head of the election observer team was identified as Orlando Yock. His name is Rolando Yoc. Also, the Siglo 21 newspaper was referred to as Sigla 21, and the Spanish word maras, or gangs, was misspelled as mares.
The campaign for the Sept. 11 elections, which include congressional and mayoral posts, has been violent and tense.
More than 30 people have been killed in campaign violence, according to the human rights ombudsman office. And the slaying in Guatemala City early this month of Argentine singer Facundo Cabral, beloved throughout Latin America, has only ratcheted up the despair over Guatemala's future.
"People are now more afraid that a sicario [hitman] on a motorcycle can shoot you for no reason, but they're also more afraid of the increasing political insecurity," Karen Fisher, a former Guatemalan anti-corruption prosecutor, said in an interview.
Guatemala has seen violent and polarizing presidential campaigns before. Democracy in the Central American nation has been tenuous at best since it emerged in 1996 from a 35-year civil war that claimed the lives of as many as 200,000 people, mostly Maya peasants.
But this campaign is different for two reasons: a sustained rise in public insecurity, and the controversial figure of the former first lady, Sandra Torres.
To be eligible to run, Torres took the highly unusual move of divorcing her husband, current President Alvaro Colom. The Guatemalan Constitution prohibits relatives of sitting presidents from pursuing the top office.
Critics say Torres used public money to promote her causes and, ultimately, her election campaign. She has also been dogged by allegations that some of her relatives are mixed up with Mexican drug traffickers who have, in effect, occupied northwestern Guatemala.
Court after court has judged her divorce a sham and ruled her ineligible to run for the presidency. But she continues to campaign anyway. Thousands of supporters turned out in the streets recently to demand that she be allowed to be a candidate.
Although she still has one more high court to turn to, her falling star has boosted the front-runner, former army Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who these days is soaring in polls, apparently beyond reach of his opponents, who also include a few minor candidates.
According to a new survey by the daily Siglo 21 newspaper and the polling organization Vox Latina, Perez Molina, of the rightist Patriotic Party, has 53% of the vote, compared with 16% for Torres' leftist coalition.
More pressing for the Guatemalan public, however, is the violence that has burdened the country of 14 million with one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the Mexican cartels' growing influence with public officials.
"There are new actors of insecurity that we did not have four years ago," political scientist Miguel Castillo said, referring to the last presidential election. "What has changed? Four years ago the most relevant issues for the citizens were the maras [gangs], street violence, etc., but now we have the foreign cartels that have a role in the political scenario."
Castillo said that young voters are less aware of the past and more focused on the cartels.
"The civil war does not exist within their political mind landscape, but evidently they are more conscious of the foreign cartels, the problem of organized crime and corruption, because that is what they see every day," he said.
Of the 31 people killed since campaign began in May, most were campaign workers or elections officials, but nine were candidates for mayoral posts, said Rolando Yoc, head of the election observation team with the ombudsman's office.
With Perez Molina emerging as the presidential front-runner, he too has baggage to deal with.
The Guatemalan army was one of the most brutal in Central America in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and Perez Molina served in top military posts, including intelligence chief and head of the feared presidential military chief of staff. His positions made him "prominent in a counterinsurgency apparatus responsible for repression and human rights abuses," the International Crisis Group reported last month.
"This is going to be an electoral fight," said Sergio Morales, the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, "the worst in years."
Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.