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Guatemala's presidential divorce of convenience

Sandra Torres, Guatemala's former first lady and presidential hopeful, divorced her husband to avoid a legal bar to her candidacy. But it may have turned the country's devout public against her.

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Torres is pursuing a strategy that mirrors the one that put her ex-husband in office. He was the first president to lose the important Guatemala City vote and still win the presidency, thanks to the support of poor, rural voters.

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Early on, Torres took charge of the Colom administration’s marquee antipoverty project, aimed at the same population. The program includes food pantries and cash payments of $40 a month to families that send their children to school and for vaccines regularly.

Opponents accuse her of “using [the program] to buy the First Lady a political support base for her presidential aspirations,” the US Embassy wrote in a cable in 2009, more than a year before she declared her intentions.

The program reached 814,625 families in 2010, but “those family, who are poor and mostly indigenous can recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of them for political purposes,” says Mónica Leonardo, a professor at Guatemala’s University of the Isthmus and a lawyer with the Pro Justice Movement. “More importantly, her discourse has been left-leaning and people, even if they are poor, are not going to buy the left-wing rhetoric in this election.”

A mano dura alternative

In recent polls, she’s trailed her opponent – former military general Otto Pérez Molina – by as few as 7 points and as many as 30 points. Although the polls have historically been unreliable here, they are unanimously against her.

“She ran without considering the consequences. I don’t think she listened when people said she didn’t have a chance to win,” says Sandino Asturias, director of the liberal Center for Guatemalan Studies. “Maybe her ego made the decision.”

Mr. Pérez, runner-up to Colom in the previous election, campaigns as a mano dura candidate, meaning he’d take a hard-handed approach to drugs, arms, and human trafficking, and gang violence.

“We don’t want the violence and insecurity found in Guatemala. There will be 25,000 murders under this government, 25,000 families who lost [someone] ... and this government doesn’t care,” Pérez’s campaign told the Monitor in a statement.

Pérez came up through the military ranks during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, 93 percent by the military, a truth commission found. Pérez commanded a military unit in the western department of Quiche, where more than 300 massacres took place. He also directed a feared military intelligence agency. The war ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords between rebel forces and the government. Pérez represented the military in the peace accords negotiations.

As the first round vote nears (a run-off will held in November unless a candidate wins the majority), Pérez has focused less on the drastic measures for which he was once known – like an antigang bill that would have imprisoned gang members even if they had not committed a crime.

“You see him moderating his approach now. His mano dura approach is being framed as just complying with existing laws,” Ms. Leonardo says. “I think he realizes that he has to appear more moderate. … Unless something drastic happens, he’s going to win this election.”

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