Guatemalan presidential candidate former Gen. Otto Perez Molina of the… (Edgard Garrido, Reuters )
Reporting from Guatemala City — Four years ago, former army Gen. Otto Perez Molina promised voters to employ a mano dura, or firm hand, to end Guatemala's crime epidemic if elected president. He lost, to a leftist.
This year, though, Perez Molina's conservative tough-on-crime message appears to have gained traction with jittery voters as the mayhem mounts, mainly at the hands of homegrown street gangs and Mexican drug traffickers muscling south into Central America.
The career soldier, who fought leftist guerrillas during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, boasts a hefty lead in opinion polls as voters prepare to pick a new president Sunday. If the surveys are even close to right, the main drama will be whether Perez Molina and his rightist Patriot Party get enough votes in a wide and fragmented field to avoid a runoff in November.
Perez Molina, 60, would be the first military man to govern Guatemala since peace accords ended the bloody conflict in 1996. But in a country still scarred by the war, his military background hasn't proved much of a campaign issue.
While liberal voters voice unease over the prospect of a tough-talking former military man in charge, others see Perez Molina's military experience as an asset during a crisis of violence. His party's symbol is a clenched fist.
"We want the mano dura," said Olga Alicia Argueta, leader of the vendors association at a teeming wholesale market here who asserts that criminals have been coddled. "A soldier brings his methods to take hard actions, and that's what our country needs."
On a recent morning, orange Patriot Party banners fluttered around the market's sprawling maze of butchers' stalls, sacks of peppers and heaps of squash and plantains. Weary of what they saw as government inaction against armed thieves who preyed on customers at will, merchants formed their own undercover security force. They say the volunteer squads have helped.
The vendors, like Guatemalans elsewhere, sound near-unanimous when asked their top concerns on the eve of elections: security, security and security.
"People want to vote for security," said meat seller Erma Vicente, who said she had been the victim of repeated extortion attempts by telephone some months back. She finally disconnected the phone. "That's all they want: someone who can provide security."
Perez Molina has spent much of the time since his 2007 loss preparing for Sunday's contest, and the permanent campaign appears to have paid off.
A poll last week published by the Prensa Libre newspaper put Perez Molina well ahead of the other nine candidates, with 43% support. But his nearest competitor, Manuel Baldizon, a federal congressman who also talks tough on crime, has closed the gap somewhat and analysts say a runoff seems likely.
The campaign has played out against a backdrop of carnage. Killings in Guatemala City run about 12 a day, according to media counts. Riding the bus here can be a death-defying exercise as gun-wielding thieves regularly hop aboard to rob — and sometimes shoot — drivers and passengers.
In the northern countryside, the arrival of Mexico's most vicious gang, the Zetas, has added a terrifying new dimension to Guatemala's long-standing drug underworld. In May, cartel hit men killed 27 workers at a farm in an attack blamed on a drug rivalry.
Perez Molina, in an interview, accused the man who defeated him in a 2007 runoff, President Alvaro Colom, of failing to rein in crime and corruption, saying Guatemala risked becoming a narco-state. Perez Molina's platform calls for "neutralizing" gangs and drug cartels with the help of the death penalty and proposes cleaning up the country's graft-ridden police and court system.
"If we don't make the right decisions, we could head into a much more serious and delicate situation in the country," he said. "We have been very clear; we have the best chance of winning and are ready to confront that clear risk."
Trim of build with neatly combed hair more salt than pepper, Perez Molina said his crime strategy would conform with the law. "We're not talking about authoritarianism," he said.
But some critics worry that mano dura may prove to be shorthand for an approach that harks back to the era of iron-fisted military rule. Rights activists say anti-crime sloganeering is no substitute for deep judicial reforms needed to uproot the corruption and impunity that mean most crimes go unpunished, if they are even reported.
"The synonym of mano dura is 'impunity,'" said Mario Minera, a rights activist in Guatemala City who said he feared "methods that were used during the conflict."
Allegations of human rights violations, including the fatal torture of a guerrilla leader named Efrain Bamaa and the assassination of a judge, Edgar Ramiro Elias Ogaldez, have swirled for years around Perez Molina, who for a time headed Guatemala's military intelligence unit.