By Mica Rosenberg and Mike McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalans anxious for relief from out-of control crime vote for a new president on Sunday with the leading candidates promising to crack down on gangs and drug cartels terrorizing the country.
A 60-year-old retired general, Otto Perez, is way ahead in polls after the ruling center-leftist party failed to field a candidate but he may fall short of the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a November run-off.
No presidential hopeful in the coffee- and sugar-exporting nation has won in the first round since Guatemala returned to democracy in 1986 after decades of military rule.
Campaigning focused on Guatemala's losing battle against street gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking cartels moving South American cocaine up to the United States.
About a dozen people are murdered every day in the country of 14.7 million people, smaller than the state of Florida.
The brutal Zetas cartel from Mexico is accused of massacres and beheadings in rural areas along its lucrative smuggling routes, and violent street gangs wreak havoc in towns and cities.
"Drug trafficking is like a monster that just keeps growing if you don't stop it in time," courier Marco Vinicio said over blasting music at Perez's closing rally in Guatemala City.
As fireworks shot overhead, hundreds of supporters punched clenched fists, the logo of Perez's right-wing Patriotic Party that promises "mano dura," a "firm hand," against crime.
"The past governments haven't done anything," Vinicio said. "We hope that Perez can stop it in time."
DRUG MONEY IN CAMPAIGN COFFERS?
With the country flush with drug money, observers worry illicit funds flowed into campaign coffers, with this year's election season the most expensive in Guatemala's history.
Both Perez and his main rival Manuel Baldizon, a businessman with a populist message to help the elderly and the poor, say they plan to increase security spending.
Perez wants to hire 10,000 new police and 2,500 soldiers while Baldizon has suggested creating a national guard and supports the death penalty.
But deploying the military to the streets -- a model used by neighboring Mexico against the drug cartels -- has different implications in Guatemala, where the army committed hundreds of atrocities during the 1960-1996 civil war.
Perez commanded troops during the war and also served as the head of the military intelligence unit that engineered shadowy assassinations of rights activists. But he points to his role signing the 1996 peace accords with leftist guerrillas as proof that he is a pragmatist.
Neither candidate says how they will pay to fight crime.
Last month, Standard & Poor's put Guatemala's credit rating on negative watch due to a rising deficit, expected to top 3 percent of gross domestic product next year, and a paltry tax take, among the lowest of all the countries the agency rates.
President Alvaro Colom's plans to crack down on tax evasion were blocked by the powerful business elite.
Colom took on more debt to fund cash and food handouts to the neediest but critics say there were few structural changes to help over half the population living in poverty.
"If there is no security there are no jobs because businesses are robbed all the time. The (criminals) kill whoever they want," said 52-year-old merchant David Martinez. "All we want is to work in peace."
($1=7.88 Guatemalan Quetzals)
(Additional reporting by Herbert Hernandez; Editing by Kieran Murray)