Centre-leftist beats general at Guatemala vote

Centre-leftist Alvaro Colom won Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday, denying power to a retired general who had sought to unleash the army to fight a violent crime wave.

Colom, a soft-spoken textile businessman, had an unassailable lead of 5,4 percentage points over General Otto Perez Molina, the former head of army intelligence with more than 95% of votes counted.

The Central American country, a United States free-trade partner, has been plagued by violent drug cartels and youth street gangs since the end of its civil war in 1996 and now has one of the world’s highest murder rates.

But voters with bad memories of military rule turned down Perez Molina’s plans to send more soldiers onto the streets, boost the use of capital punishment and declare states of emergency to fight crime.

”It is a ‘no’ to Guatemala’s tragic history,” Colom (56) said when asked if the vote was a rejection of the country’s military past.

Chain-smoker Colom, whose party symbol is a peace dove, says Guatemala will only cut crime by attacking poverty and removing corrupt police and judges,

Colom, on his third bid to win the presidency, had accused Perez Molina of seeking to take Guatemala back to the dark days of the Cold War when the powerful military systematically abused human rights.

”We have had a strong hand for 50 years and it caused more than 250 000 victims in a dirty war,” he said.

The army ruled Guatemala for decades until the mid-1980s and committed hundreds of massacres in 36 years of civil war with leftist rebels. More than 200 000 people died, most of them Mayan peasants killed in army-led massacres.

Marred by violence

The election campaign was marred by violence, with more than 50 political party activists or candidates for Congress or local elections killed. Colom’s party was hardest hit with almost 20 party members murdered since last year.

The president-elect has admitted that drug gangsters have found their way into his National Unity for Hope party.

Some voters say Colom, a bookish former deputy economy minister, is not tough enough to fight cocaine cartels, corruption and infamous ”mara” street gangs which extort businesses and behead rivals.

”Soldiers are disciplined. For all his good intentions, Colom sadly does not have the determination needed,” said Perez Molina supporter Noemi Samoyoa, a resident of the capital’s El Gallito area where drug-gang shootouts are common.

Colom defines himself as a moderate social democrat and says he is inspired by leftist presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

He says his government would not clash with the landowning and business elites of Guatemala, a major coffee producer.

Several of Colom’s relatives were killed during the civil war, including his uncle Manuel Colom Argueta, a presidential candidate and prominent leftist who was murdered by the military in 1979. – Reuters

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