Retired general promises security in Guatemala vote

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2011 12:39 AM
Retired general promises security in Guatemala vote

By Mike McDonald

SOLOLA, Guatemala (Reuters) - During Guatemala's civil war, Mayan weaver Mari Luisa Chiro was terrified of the soldiers who patrolled her small village. Now she says she wants the army back to crack down on criminals and drug traffickers spreading fear in the country's highlands.

Chiro, whose 15-year-old daughter was kidnapped last month and has not been seen since, plans to vote in this Sunday's presidential election for retired army general Otto Perez, who is promising an "iron fist" to fight spiraling crime.

Running for the right-wing Patriotic Party in his second bid for the presidency, Perez has a wide lead in polls, although he might not win the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a run-off vote in November.

Perez, 60, commanded troops during the 1960-1996 civil war between government forces against leftist guerrillas, a conflict that killed nearly a quarter-million people, mostly Mayan. A U.N.-backed truth commission set up after the war found the army had committed hundreds of massacres.

"Yes, we are scared (of the military), but now things are worse than they were during the war," said Chiro, 42, wearing a traditionally embroidered outfit at a rally supporting Perez in the town of Solola west of the capital.

She backs Perez's plan to increase the national police force by 10,000 officers and add 2,500 soldiers to the army during his four-year presidential term.

Decades of military rule and internal conflict left Guatemala with weak institutions, and it has in the last few years become a key transit point for South American cocaine being smuggled north to Mexico and into the United States.

The government says Mexican drug cartels are now operating in wide swaths of Guatemala's territory, especially in the lawless region near the porous northern border with Mexico.

"December will mark 16 years since we signed the peace accords, but 16 years later, peace hasn't arrived," Perez said at the rally in Solola.

In May, the brutal Zetas cartel beheaded 27 Guatemalan farm workers in a village near the northern border with Mexico in the worst massacre since the country's civil war.

Adding to the chaos, street gangs known as "maras" regularly extort businesses in cities and towns and often kill those who don't pay.

DIVORCE NOT ENOUGH

Guatemala's ruling center-leftist UNE party was left with no candidate in the race -- giving Perez a boost -- when President Alvaro Colom's wife was barred from running under a rule preventing the president's relatives from seeking office.

A court blocked Sandra Torres' bid even after she had tearily filed for a divorce from Colom earlier this year in a failed attempt to side-step the rule.

Centrist congressman Manuel Baldizon is trying to snap up the votes that would have gone to Torres. A poll published on Thursday showed him in second place at just over 26 percent -- trailing Perez by more than 16 percentage points.

The next president will face enormous security challenges -- Guatemala's murder rate is seven times that of the United States -- and staggering inequality with more than half of the country's 15 million people living below the poverty line.

A much-needed fiscal reform has been stalled by legislative deadlock for over a decade, leaving Guatemala with one of the lowest tax takes in the hemisphere at around 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Nearly $1 billion in taxes are evaded every year, largely by a powerful private sector reluctant to pay more.

Relying heavily on foreign donations to fund security initiatives, the coffee- and sugar-exporting country has come under pressure from Washington to boost its tax revenue.

"Businesses and the rich must pay their fair share of taxes and become full partners in a whole-of-society effort, since true security cannot be funded on the backs of the poor," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a visit in June.

Perez has ruled out creating new taxes but could raise existing duties. He also told Reuters in an interview he wants to increase mining royalties from 1 to 10 percent, to draw more revenue from the country's gold and nickel mines.

Baldizon said he would eliminate the country's 12 percent sales tax in favor of a 5 percent flat tax and also supports an austerity plan that could shrink public institutions.

If none of the 10 candidates wins a majority on Sunday, a second round of voting between the top two will be held on November 6 and the new president will take office on January 14.

Voters will also elect legislators for Congress and mayors across the country.

(Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Kieran Murray)