The Quetzal Conundrum

Rising violence will be the biggest problem confronting the next president of Guatemala

The first-round of the Guatemalan presidential election on 11 September produced no clear winner and so a run-off will take place on 6 November. Retired former general Otto Perez Molina (36%) and businessman Manuel Baldizon (24%) will contest the second vote. At barely 2%, support for the only left-leaning candidate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan rights champion Rigoberta Menchú, hardly registered.

Unsurprisingly, the topic of public security formed the core of the election campaigns. The people are worried about powerful criminal organisations from Mexico, such as Los Zetas gangsters, tapping into the Central American underworld of mara criminal units and building allegiances and animosities. In May this year, outgoing president Álvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the northern jungle region of Petén after 27 people were brutally killed at a ranch. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 (the second-highest in the region after El Salvador, according to a World Bank report).

Mr Perez Molina adopted a clenched fist as his campaign logo and has promised a firm response to the violence; his pledge to expand the role of the army in the fight against the gangs has been supported by rival Mr Baldizon. However, with weak state institutions and a glance north to current Mexican public feeling about the deployment of the military to battle the gangsters, letting the army loose in the rainforests will be far from an easy twirl of the presidential pen.

Mr Baldizon has hinted at another tough measure to deal with the violence: increasing the use of the death penalty, last used in 2000. This may well be popular with the people but Guatemala must not just look inwards in the battle. The Mérida Initiative pledges much greater US support for Mexico than for Central American nations. Renegotiating the terms of such agreements and calling upon cross-border aid and debate through such institutions as the Central American Parliament, or PARLACEN, (which was founded in Guatemala), would be a prescient and less regionally divisive reaction to the growing crisis.

Mr Baldizon’s pledge to continue the social programmes started by incumber leftist Mr Colom poll well in a country with critical levels of poverty, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, but his promise to ensure the national soccer team qualifies for the 2014 World Cup is a distraction.

By focusing on the destructive violence, Mr Perez Molina has maintained healthy support that will probably see him home in the run-off. Training his eye on the gangsters is one thing but it would also be wise to devote some attention to the July 2012 Mexican presidential elections, which are set to be the most important event in the current drugs violence crisis. If Mr Perez Molina really wants to use his ‘clenched fist’ he will have to shake hands and ensure neighbourly support first to combat this cross-border problem.

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