GUATEMALA’S NATIONAL PALACE. PHOTO: ROB MERCATANTE. WIKIMEDIA COMMONSEvery fourth year the western media massively mobilize to cover every single detail of the presidential election of the United States of America. Meanwhile, other states hold elections that pass by without anyone taking notice. One of these countries is Guatemala, a small country in Central America known for its ancient pyramids (that appear as the rebel base in the Star Wars IV – A New Hope), Mayan culture, and a long and bloody civil war. In 1996, Guatemala came out of a 36 year long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, of which 83% were indigenous, and has since embarked on a difficult path towards democracy and development.
The fourth election since the civil war was held on September 11th 2011 and since no party received over 50% of the votes in the first round, the election went to a runoff on the 6th of November. In the runoff between Otto Pérez Molina, from the right-wing Patriotic Party (PP), and Manuel Baldizón, from the populist party Renewed Democratic Liberty (Lider), the former general Pérez Molina won with 54% of the votes.
The key political issue throughout the election campaign has been security. With soaring crime, escalating violence by criminal organizations, and a high level of corruption, public security has become a top priority. The former military general Pérez Molina’s motto of a “mano dura” (strong hand) against the criminals has resonated well with the urbanized part of the population. He has vowed to radically increase the number of policemen and deploy more soldiers to combat organized crime, but also by using video surveillance, extending criminal sentences, and lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Pérez Molina himself commanded troops against the leftist guerillas during the civil war, in an area where human rights violations where most blatant. Human rights activists—as well as political opponents—have therefore accused him of war crimes against civilians. Pérez Molina has denied these accusations and instead stressed that he helped to negotiate the peace accord in 1996. Whether the accusations are true or not, Pérez Molina still has personal ties to the army and he trusts the soldiers to solve the crime problem. But the solution has been viewed with skepticism from parts of the population, especially among the people who were abused by the military during the civil war.
Pérez Molina seeks to pursue the same solution to the problem of organized crime as Mexico has, that is to deploy soldiers to combat the organizations. But given that the Mexican conflict with the cartels has generated over 40,000 deaths and has no victory in sight, it is uncertain how the Guatemalan army would be more successful in such an attempt.