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Guatemala's leadership gap

Guatemalans will vote Sunday in a presidential runoff election. But neither candidate has outlined a credible plan to rescue the country.

November 06, 2011

Fifteen years after Guatemala's bloody civil war officially ended, the country is still struggling to find peace. Crime and poverty have been rampant for years, and now drug cartels and gangs threaten to usher in a new wave of violence. On Sunday, Guatemalans will cast their votes for the presidential candidate they hope will stop the bloodletting and restore security. They face a nearly impossible choice.

Otto Perez Molina, considered the front-runner, is a former general who has promised to reduce violence by double digits during his first month in office. He has pledged to use a mano dura — an iron fist — to fight drug cartels, and has called for expanding the size and role of the military. His rival, Manuel Baldizon, is a business tycoon turned populist who has made wildly optimistic campaign promises to increase salaries and boost social programs, although the cash-strapped government is barely able to pay for schools. He even promised to lead Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup.

Unfortunately, neither candidate has outlined a credible plan to rescue the country. Both ignore the fact that more than 70% of Guatemalans live in poverty and that the malnutrition rate among children is among the highest in the region. They pay little attention to the fact that the country has one of the lowest tax collection rates in the region, and one of the highest homicide rates — 45 per 100,000.

But there is still time for the winning candidate to refocus his vision. (The new president will take office in January.) A good place to start is by pledging support for rebuilding judicial institutions and allowing Atty. Gen. Claudia Paz de Paz to serve out her five-year term. She has shown tremendous courage by prosecuting human rights abusers — including soldiers — and is credited with strengthening prosecution of drug cartel leaders.

The next president should also continue to use international assistance, including U.S. funds earmarked to combat drugs and violence, to train and strengthen the national police. And both candidates should reconsider their call for expanding the military as a way to fight crime. The wounds from Guatemala's decades-long war are still too fresh. A United Nations-sponsored truth commission concluded that 200,000 people were killed at the hands of military or paramilitary groups.

A real victory for Guatemalans would be a president who can deliver peace, not empty promises.

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