A former military general who softened his image as the "iron fist" to promote social programs and democracy but appeared to be a favorite to control Guatemala's epidemic crime rates was the leading candidate heading into Sunday's presidential election.
Voters disappointed in outgoing President Alvaro Colom's failure to reduce crime have indicated that Otto Perez Molina may be the best person to lead the charge in a nation with one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere.
"I'm voting because it's my duty, because I'm Guatemalan _ but also so we can get under control all of the violence, corruption, impunity and lack of employment in my country," said 68-year-old veterinarian Luis Eduardo Rodriguez Contenti, a Guatemala City resident who arrived before the polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (9 a.m. EDT; 1300 GMT).
Rodriguez works in Guatemala's violent northern region of Peten, where 27 people were decapitated in an assault in March that authorities attribute to the Zetas drug gang, a Mexico-based organization that has expanded across the border.
"My business has fallen by 60 percent, especially after what happened in March," Rodriguez said.
Violence is epidemic in this nation of 14.7 million people, and organized crime has overrun many regions. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000, according to a report by the World Bank.
Perez, who lost to Colom in 2007, would be the first former military leader elected president since democracy was restored in the country in 1986, after the military dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s.
A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, 93 percent of them by state forces and paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, many credit Perez as having played a key role in the march toward democracy, including negotiating the 1996 peace accords that ended the conflict.
Seventy-five percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the indigenous and rural poor who were most hurt by the war are also bearing the brunt of the current violence.
In the most recent polls, Perez had the support of as many as 48 percent of voters, followed by businessmen Manuel Baldizon with 18 and Eduardo Suger with 10 percent. All are right-leaning.
Among a field of 10 candidates, the only leftist running is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, who is polling with little more than 2 percent.
Perez needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a November runoff. The winner takes office in January.
Baldizon, a tycoon-turned-political populist, has promised to employ the death penalty, now rarely used, and to televise executions.
Suger, who built a network of private universities, is an open defender of neoliberalism, the policy of relying on private enterprise and a market-driven approach to economic and social problems, which also stresses liberalized trade and relatively open markets.
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.
Polls say about 11 percent of voters plan to submit blank votes. Torres asked voters to do so to protest her being barred from running.
Alvaro Velasquez, of the Central American Institute of Political Studies, said people are disenchanted with politics as a result of the Colom government, which promised to quell the violence with social programs.
"They expected the government of Colom to be the transformation, but he didn't even try to be strong," Velasquez said.