GUATEMALA CITY _ Crime-weary Guatemalans appear poised to elect a former general as president who promises an "iron fist" to fight crime in one of the world's most violent countries not at war.
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 in the country.
Perez has never been implicated in massacres or other crimes attributed to the military during a bloody, 36-year civil war with Marxist rebels and has played key roles in the march toward democracy, including negotiating the peace accords. Guatemalans today appear to be more worried about poverty and the violence they face from street gangs and drug traffickers than whether a former military leader would represent a return to the past.
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 his numbers have 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 that 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 and 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 Perez in the polls and 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 of Guatemala. "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 whom 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.
Perez 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, Perez studied in 1985 in the U.S. military's School of the Americas. He also took classes at and led the school for the elite commandos known as "kaibiles," a force linked to massacres of peasants during the war.
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.
And he 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. The deeply divided country has a largely white elite and impoverished Indian majority, with the war leaving a legacy of rampant corruption and a culture of violence.
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.
Associated Press Writer Katherine Corcoran contributed to this report from Mexico City.