GUATEMALA CITY — A former military general known for his “iron fist” campaign to stop Guatemala’s epidemic crime rates leads the field of 10 candidates in Sunday’s presidential election.
Voters disappointed in outgoing President Alvaro Colom’s failure to reduce crime have indicated that Otto Perez Molina may be the best person to lead the charge in a nation with one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere.
“I’m voting because it’s my duty, because I’m Guatemalan — but also so we can get under control all of the violence, corruption, impunity and lack of employment in my country,” said 68-year-old veterinarian Luis Eduardo Rodriguez Contenti.
Rodriguez works in Guatemala’s violent northern region of Peten, where 27 people were decapitated in an assault in March that authorities attribute to the Zetas drug gang, a Mexico-based organization that has expanded across the border.
“My business has fallen by 60 percent, especially after what happened in March,” Rodriguez said.
The president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Maria Eugenia Villagran, estimated the turnout to be higher than 50 percent. Polls closed Sunday evening and officials said vote counting had begun.
In the most recent polls, Perez had the support of as many as 48 percent of voters, followed by businessmen Manuel Baldizon with 18 and Eduardo Suger with 10 percent. All are right-leaning.
Perez needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a November runoff. The winner takes office in January.
“Let’s not exclude the possibility that we could win in the first round,” Perez said after casting his vote in a local school Sunday. “It will be the will of God and the Guatemalan people, but let’s not rule it out.”
There were sporadic reports of violence related to the vote, but nothing like in 2007 when Perez narrowly lost to Colom. That campaign was marred by a wave of violence that left more than 50 candidates, party activists and their family members dead.
Police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said Sunday that unknown assailants opened fire on the headquarters of Perez’s Patriot Party in San Miguel Chaparron, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) east of Guatemala city. A security guard at the headquarters died, as well as the body guard of the mayoral candidate for the rival National Unity for Hope.
Police are investigating the details of what happened.
Violence is epidemic in this nation of 14.7 million people, and organized crime has overrun many regions. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000, according to a report by the World Bank.
Perez, who lost to Colom in 2007, would be the first former military leader elected president since democracy was restored in the country in 1986, after the military dictatorships of the 1970s and ‘80s.
A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, 93 percent of them by state forces and paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, many credit Perez as having played a key role in the march toward democracy, including negotiating the 1996 peace accords that ended the conflict.
Seventy-five percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the indigenous and rural poor who were most hurt by the war are also bearing the brunt of the current violence.
Among a field of 10 candidates, the only leftist running is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, who is polling with little more than 2 percent.
Baldizon, a tycoon-turned-political populist, has promised to employ the death penalty, now rarely used, and to televise executions.
Suger, who built a network of private universities, is an open defender of neoliberalism, the policy of relying on private enterprise and a market-driven approach to economic and social problems, which also stresses liberalized trade and relatively open markets.
Perez’s strongest opponent was barred from running.
Sandra Torres, Colom’s ex-wife, was declared ineligible by the Supreme Court because the constitution bars family members of the president from running. Torres divorced Colom before declaring her candidacy, but the courts saw the move as a maneuver to evade the law.