It is a powerful symbol of the challenges facing Guatemala three years after the signing of a historic peace agreement that the leading candidate in next month's presidential elections has not just admitted that he killed - in what he calls self-defense - two people in Mexico in 1982 and fled from the law but is also using the killings in his campaign to demonstrate his courage and toughness. He declares: "A man who can defend his own life can defend yours."
The past deeds of Alfonso Portillo, candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front of former dictator Gen. Efran Rios Montt, symbolize the impunity still dominant in Guatemala. Earlier this year, a UN-sponsored truth commission reported that more than 200,000 people had been killed or disappeared in the country's 36-year armed conflict and that state forces were responsible for 93 percent of the rights violations.
President Alvaro Arz is leaving to his successor the hot potato of how to deal with the commission's recommendations. Victims of human rights violations haven't fared better in the courts. Despite evidence that the murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi last year was a political crime, the killing remains unsolved, and the prosecutor recently fled Guatemala because of death threats. Other notorious human rights crimes are bogged down in court, or the accused have received dubious acquittals.
Three years into Guatemala's peace process, the justice system is marked by "inefficiency, incompetence, corruption, influence trafficking, and cronyism," according to a recent UN investigation. A program to build a new civilian police force is deeply flawed and there are dangers the new force could follow in the footsteps of its corrupt, brutal, and ineffective predecessors. The military has been downsized but still wields excessive influence, and elements of it have been linked to drug trafficking and political crimes.
There have been advances, particularly improved human rights and the increased participation of women and indigenous people in the political process. But 80 percent of the people live in poverty, and crime is pervasive. Most Guatemalans don't identify with their nation's peace process and don't feel it has benefited them, as was shown in the May defeat of constitutional reforms that would have institutionalized key elements of the peace accords.
The choice in the November national elections isn't inspiring for supporters of Guatemala's peace process. Mr. Portillo, the front-runner, leads an eclectic grouping - but one strongly influenced by Rios Montt and former paramilitaries. No one can predict what a Portillo government would do, but the links to the general, who presided over the worst period of atrocities (the early 1980s), is chilling.
Oscar Berger, outgoing mayor of Guatemala City and candidate of the ruling National Advancement Party, is cast from a wealthy elite mold similar to Mr. Arz's. Unlike Arz, however, Mr. Berger isn't identified with the peace process. He's expected to place greater emphasis on orthodox economic growth policies than on social and fiscal policies.
The left coalition shot itself in the foot early in the campaign with a schism linked more to power and personalities than differences over vision and strategy. The Alliance for a New Nation, led by Alvaro Colom and including the former guerrillas, is not expected to come close to winning power. But the left is the main voice supporting the peace accords and could wield the balance of power if elections go to a second round in December.
The other important player in Guatemala is the international community. Though donors and other supporters of the peace process will avoid interfering in the elections, they should be clear that continued economic support will depend on carrying out the peace agreements - whoever wins. The major donors - including the US and international development banks - have committed $2 billion to support the peace process. They must follow closely UN assessments of compliance with the peace accords and condition aid to implementation of the peace agreements.
A crucial test of the new government will be the steps it takes to carry out the recommendations of the truth commission. Without truth about the past and compensation to victims of rights violations, Guatemala's ambitious democratization, peace, and reconciliation are on shaky ground.
*Hugh Byrne is a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society