Reeling from Drug Violence, Guatemala Turns to a Former General

Controversial former general Otto Pérez Molina, who ran a law-and-order campaign, easily defeated tycoon-turned-political populist Manuel Baldizón in Sunday's presidential run-off election. Pérez garnered 54 percent of the vote to Baldizón's 46 percent.

Pérez Molina, 61, is the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala in the 25 years after the end of brutal military rule.

The result went exactly as the polls had predicted, though many distrusted them and felt a last-minute surge by Baldizón would make the race tight.

But analysts said it was Pérez who surged in the final days.

"At the end of the campaign, Otto Pérez began to appeal to the idea of continuity and stability, while Baldizón tried to appear new and creative," said Renso Rosal, political analyst with the University Rafael Landivar. "That doesn't sit well with a conservative society like Guatemala."

Voter turnout was nearly 60 percent.

While some international groups expressed concern that the country which has struggled to emerge from military rule, was turning to a former military leader, Guatemala has a young population. Many don't remember the 36-year war which left over 200,000 dead, the vast majority of whom were Mayan and victims of army, police and paramilitary.

Pérez Molina has never been charged with any atrocities and was one of the army's chief representatives in negotiating the 1996 peace accords.

"They talk a lot about the past, but there has been no case against him," said Pérez supporter Daniel Rustrian, 20, who was voting for the first time. "I'm not saying there wasn't genocide, but no one has demonstrated anything against him."

Instead, voters supported Pérez's "iron-fist" approach to rampant crime in the country, which has been overrun by gangs, Mexican drug cartels and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. President Alvaro Colom had to send the military to various parts of the country in the last six months to regain control from the drug gangs.

"The first order of business will be to lower the levels of violence and insecurity that we're living, and work with congress to improve the federal budget," Pérez said upon his victory, touching on the country's other major problem.

Guatemala has one of lowest tax rates in the world, raising little money for schools, roads or other improvements that would help bring the country out of severe poverty. More than half of Guatemala's 14 million people live below the poverty line. The establishment traditionally has fought hard against raising taxes.

Pérez, who takes officer Jan. 14, narrowly lost four years ago to Colom, who cannot run for re-election. That tradition bodes well for Baldizón, 41, who barely registered in the polls when campaigning began six months ago. He had risen dramatically to place second in the Sept. 11 election and to compete in Sunday's runoff thanks to his youth, enthusiasm and populist promises.

"There are two winners, no losers," said Alberto de Aregon of the political firm of Aregon and Associates.

Baldizón made some promises considered outlandish, including that he would take Guatemala's soccer team to the World Cup. But other promises are appealing, including giving workers an extra month's salary a year, reinstating the death penalty and televising executions.

Both candidates lean to the right after the center-left party of Colom failed to field a candidate.

Pérez made his military career as an intelligence specialist, one of the most influential and powerful sections of the army.

According to declassified U.S. documents released by the National Security Archive research organization, Pérez studied in 1985 in the U.S. military's School of the Americas.

He's also known as the general who stood behind the constitutional court when in 1993 President Jorge Serrano tried to dissolve Congress and the constitution.

He was appointed 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 presidential term after Serrano fled.

Baldizón on Sunday urged fellow Guatemalans to vote for a new face and reject a candidate In the end, tradition trumped rising enthusiasm for a youthful populist.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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