Patriotic Party presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina greets supporters at a campaign rally in Asuncion Mita, Guatemala, Friday Sept. 9, 2011. The latest polls show Molina, a former general, heading into Sunday's election as the frontrunner with a 20-point lead over his closest challenger. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
A former general and his zero-tolerance for crime message are striking a chord with Guatemalan voters, who are scheduled to pick a new president on Sunday.
Otto Perez Molina, 61, heads into Sunday's election with a 20-point lead over his closest challenger 25 years after the end of brutal military rule. Perez has vowed to lead with an "iron fist" against crime in Guatemala, which is one of the most violent countries in the world.
Perez has never been implicated in massacres or other crimes attributed to the military during a bloody, 36-year civil war with Marxist rebels. Guatemalans today appear to be more worried about the violence they face from street gangs and drug traffickers.
Crime is epidemic in the capital, Guatemala City, and the country has one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere at 45 per 100,000, according to a report by the World Bank.
The indigenous and poor in rural areas who were most hurt by the war are also bearing the brunt of current conflicts.
"The people believe a military leader has the ability to reclaim security," said Edgar Gutierrez, Guatemalan foreign minister from 2002 to 2004. "Almost 70 percent of voters are young. They didn't live the armed conflict, they don't know about the massacres ... and since the peace accords, the national police have become the organization that is talked about daily as corrupt, abusive and inept, not the military."
Perez, of the right-wing Patriotic Party, is not likely to win outright on Sunday. Candidates must get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a November runoff, and recent polls show Perez with 40 percent. The rest is divided among nine other candidates. His closest challenger is Manuel Baldizon of the Democratic Freedom Revival party, a businessman in the northern state of Peten, where the Mexico-based Zetas drug gang is a growing problem and where current President Alvaro Colom decreed a state of siege late last year to regain control.
Polls show Baldizon with support of about 20 percent of voters, but he has been rising with his proposals for social programs combined with zero tolerance on crime.
Some 75 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, according to the World Bank, and both leading candidates have offered to maintain the social assistance programs put in place by the Colom government. Baldizon is also promising workers an extra month's salary each year.
Still, many predict Perez will be president. And the military's checkered past worries leftist groups and human rights organizations, who are still fighting to prosecute rights violators from dictatorships that ruled from the 1970s until democratic elections were restored in 1986.
A U.N.-sponsored postwar truth commission found that 200,000 people were killed in the civil war, 83 percent of them Mayan Indians. State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations the commission documented.
Witnesses say hundreds of villages were obliterated by an army scorched-earth policy aimed at destroying any base of support for the rebels.
Perez has said there were no massacres or genocide, that the killings were the usual consequence of war.
"We believe he will try to close the discussion on the past under the argument that opening new wounds would create conflict," said Claudia Samayoa, coordinator of the Organizations in Defense of Human Rights. "One of the biggest conflicts will be the fight of the victims."
But there is little support for the left in this election. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu trails far behind and even the other candidates aren't bringing up Perez's military history.
"This is different," said political scientist Luis Fernando Mack of the University of San Carlos. "Not only because it's a democratic election, but it's not in the same context as an armed conflict. Now there are national and international controls if anyone tries to violate the law."
Perez narrowly lost four years ago to President Alvaro Colom, a leftist who promised to fight crime with social programs, but who many consider a weak leader. Guatemalans have a history of electing the runner-up in the next presidential election since democracy was restored in 1986, and many feel that it is now Perez's turn after his previous defeat.
He made his military career as an intelligence specialist, one of the most influential and powerful sections of the army. He also served as head of Guatemala's equivalent of the Secret Service for Ramiro de Leon Carpio, a human rights ombudsman chosen by Guatemala's legislature in 1993 to serve out the term of President Jorge Serrano, who fled the country after trying to dissolve congress and the constitution.
Perez also spent three months in the Cabinet of former President Alfonso Portillo in 2000 before he quit.
According to declassified U.S. documents released by the National Security Archive research organization, Perez studied in 1985 in the U.S. military's School of the Americas, as well as the studied in and later led the school for the elite commandos known as "kaibiles," a force linked to massacres of peasants during the war.
He also was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords that ended the war with the rebels.
Perez declined interview requests from The Associated Press but at campaign events has said he will emphasize rural development, building roads and punishing corrupt officials in the deeply divided country, with a largely white elite and an impoverished Indian majority, rampant corruption and a culture of violence as a legacy of the war.
Guatemala has been a main corridor for Colombian cocaine heading to the United States for some time, but the last four years have seen the Zetas impose themselves across as much as half of the country, according to Leonel Ruiz, federal prosecutor for narcotics activity.
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.
This is based on a story by The Associated Press.