Officials say at least one-third of the country has been penetrated by cartels, many arriving from Mexico.
|General Otto Perez is highly favored to win presidential elections in September [EPA]|
Activists in Guatemala are alarmed at the prospect of a victory by the right in the September general elections, recalling the dismal records of past regimes in the areas of human rights, the economy and justice.
On September 11, Guatemalans will elect social democratic President Alvaro Colom’s successor. With just three weeks to go, the polls show that retired General Otto Perez of the right-wing Partido Patriota (PP – Patriotic Party) has a wide lead over his rivals.
In a July 2 – August 8 CID Gallup poll, 29 per cent of respondents said they supported Perez, while 13 per cent backed Manuel Baldizon of the populist Libertad Democratica Renovada (LIDER – Renewed Democratic Freedom party), 26 per cent supported other candidates and 32 per cent were undecided.
Sandra Torres, President Colom’s ex-wife, was until recently running second in the polls, with nearly 15 per cent support. However, the constitutional court ruled out her candidacy because Colom was in office at the time of their divorce, and Guatemala’s constitution bars family members of any sitting president from running for office.
After Torres was forced to pull out of the race there were some shifts in the electoral scenario, but Perez remained at the top of the polls. Civil society leaders are expressing concern about the future, especially in terms of human rights, economic development and the independence of the judiciary.
“People’s concept of a PP government is that it would be authoritarian, especially when addressing security issues. The party logo is a raised clenched fist, and the PP is known for its support of ‘iron fist’ (hard-line) policies,” Catalina Soberanis, the head of the Central American Institute for Political Studies (INCEP), said.
“Iron fist” policies, characterised by a repressive approach to violent crime, are all too familiar in Central America. They were enforced in El Salvador between 2004 and 2009 by then president Antonio Saca, and in Honduras from 2002 to 2006 by president Ricardo Maduro, both of whom were severely criticised by human rights organisations that accused them of excessive force and abuses against the civilian population in the name of security.
Security and economy
But voters in Guatemala are also anxious about the urgent need for extensive restructuring of economic policy.
“The fiscal deficit has to be tackled. If Perez becomes president, as a conservative he will have to decide whether to seek dialogue or, if he has a parliamentary majority, agree to overhaul the tax system,” Soberanis said.
In July, Colom slashed the budget for government expenditure by some $275m in a bid to combat the fiscal deficit, which stands at $575m. The cuts hurt spending on health, security and attempts to strengthen the justice system.
“The biggest and most sensitive challenge lying in wait for the future government is comprehensive modernisation of tax policy, ranging from revenue to contraband to corruption,” because the viability of its plans will depend on this, said Raquel Zelaya of the Association for Social Studies and Research (ASIES), a private local think tank, describing the fiscal scenario for 2012 as “very complicated”.
The PP has close ties with the business community, a large part of which is financing Perez’s campaign, which has cost over $7m so far.
Beyond economic aspects, Zelaya said other retired military officers will be Perez’s close collaborators if he is elected, although she clarified that she was not referring to “a militarisation of Guatemalan society”.
Human rights activist Claudia Samayoa, however, disagreed. She said: “Perez’s political team includes a significant number of generals and colonels with backgrounds in the intelligence service and military operations, who participated actively in the design of genocidal policies during the armed internal conflict.”
Zelaya said Perez denies genocide ever took place in Guatemala, which “demonstrates a cynical attitude and insults the intelligence of Guatemalans.
“If torture, femicides (gender-based murders of women) or sexual violence are committed in future by state security forces, a Perez government would not recognise these crimes for what they are, because he has not done so with regard to the past,” she said.
A history of violence
The United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission found that during the 1960-1996 war waged by the armed forces, police and paramilitary allies against left-wing guerrillas, state agents committed genocide against rural Maya Indians during counterinsurgency operations.
If the PP adopted an iron-fisted approach, the country could see forced evictions, repression of social protests, and support for mining and hydroelectric initiatives to the detriment of local development, rights activist Samayoa said.
Hortencia Simón of the Political Association of Maya Women (MOLOJ), a local NGO, said that the agenda of indigenous organisations is largely incompatible not only with that of the PP but also with the rest of the political parties in Guatemala.
For example, she said, the PP supports an expansion of mining activity, while the native Maya communities are mobilising popular opposition.
She also noted that former military personnel who participated in human rights violations during the war are currently being put on trial. “But if the next government is headed by a military officer, chances are high that justice will not prosper,” she said.
PP lawmaker Gudy Rivera said that distinctions should cease to be made between soldiers or guerrillas “because the war is over”. He said he was confident that matters of security will be decided in consensus with the different segments of the population.
“We are not a party of improvisation, and neither is our presidential candidate. We know the security situation in the country has been worsening, and we will appoint the best qualified people to government security positions,” he added.
Regarding contracts to be awarded to companies to build hydropower dams, Rivera said the PP would respect current legislation and public opinion. “Nothing will be done that is against the law, or against the will of the people of Guatemala,” he emphasised.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.