“If Rios Montt actually wins I’m getting out of this country. There are going to be killings. The whole country is going to go mad,” says Sandra Fereiro, 22, a Guatemalan government worker.
“We are stocking up on essential supplies of food and water before the election as we do not know what is going to happen,” she says.
Guatemala goes to the polls on 9 November. One of the key contestants for the post of president is former military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt, and he is in with an outside chance.
Montt is accused of the state-sponsored murder of thousands of people during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. He faces charges of genocide under Spanish law following the killings of its citizens in Guatemala during his 16-month reign of terror in 1982-83.
He has twice before tried to run for presidency but a constitutional law banned him as a former coup leader. That was overturned this July by the constitutional court.
“Twenty years ago Rios Montt ran a military regime that killed thousands of people. Today, he should be on trial, not running for president," says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of Human Rights Watch for the Americas.
In the last few months, more than 20 political killings have taken place in a climate of fear and intimidation. The killings are linked to presidential elections on 9 November. The United Nations says President Alfonso Portillo’s leadership has led to an “uncontrollable spiral of violence".
Journalists (hands lifted) were held
hostage by Montt supporters
“Given the urgency of the situation, we believe it is now critical that the UN moves as quickly as possible,” said a joint letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in October from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights calling for an investigation commission into armed clandestine groups.
The notorious military agency, the Presidential Security Guard (EMP) was ceremoniously disbanded on 31 October but, under a new law, ex-members can be drafted quickly into the security services, the SAAS.
Oscar Berger of the Great Guatemalan National Alliance (Gana) is ahead in the polls with 33%. Rios Montt, who is currently the head of congress for the ruling party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) is in third place behind Alvaro Colom from the National Unity of Hope (UNE).
“Berger is the best choice because he is so rich he doesn’t need to be corrupt,” says Marco Perez, 42, a dentist. “All the other parties have their own interests at heart.”
“Many parties are buying votes,” says Juan Gomez, 30, a teacher. “Rios Montt and the FRG could win on account of their corrupt techniques. Problems that already exist for Guatemala will get worse.”
“The current climate is one of mistrust and fear amongst the people. It is likely to be a civil war. I believe there isn’t a sector that is in agreement with the FRG. In some communities they have chased them out when they have tried to hold rallies,” says Maria Hernandez, 37, director of a social development project.
“Berger is the best choice because he is so rich he doesn’t need to be corrupt”
Former members of the Civil Self-Defence Patrol (PAC), rightwing paramilitary set up in 1982 under Rios Montt, held in their custody four journalists from the daily newspaper Prensa Libre and only released them recently after getting signed promises of government compensation.
The PACs were disbanded in 1996, after more than 200,000 people had been killed in the civil war, 90% of them by security services.
President Portillo has offered them 5% payment before and 95% after the election. All other candidates have followed suit with the 95% offer, except Alvaro Colom, who refuses and says the country cannot afford it.
“The military and the police are not allowed to vote but Rios Montt has already secured 250,000 papers that he is distributing to them so they can illegally get on the electoral register,” claims Sandra Fereiro.
“They threaten the indigenous person that they will kill everyone who doesn’t vote for him. Considering their history, the indigenous people are very frightened and will not believe anyone who tells them to ignore this and that it is a private vote,” she said.