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Guatemala election: Rising crime positions Otto Pérez Molina for victory

Mr. Pérez Molina, the former head of military intelligence in the 1980s, touts himself as the only candidate who can improve Guatemala's deteriorating security situation. He led the polls going into today's presidential election.

By Nic WirtzContributor, Kara AndradeContributor / September 11, 2011

Poll workers prepare for today's presidential election in San Lucas Tolliman, Guatemala.

Rodrigo Abd/AP

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Guatemala City

While patting their heads and thumping their chests, thousands of Guatemalans at a recent political rally chanted: "Iron fist, head, and heart." It's the campaign slogan for Otto Pérez Molina, an ex-general whose hard-line talk about drugs and gangs has made him the favorite in the Sept. 11 presidential poll.

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Mr. Pérez Molina, the former head of military intelligence in the 1980s, touts himself as the law-and-order candidate who can change this country's status as the new headquarters of narcotrafficking by applying the lessons he learned while fighting guerrillas during the 36-year civil war.

That's an appealing message to a society wearied by fast-rising crime rates. In 2010, the homicide rate hit 41 per 100,000 (compared with 5.4 per 100,000 in the United States). As Mexico clamps down on its drug gangs, traffickers continue to flee to Guatemala. Last year, the US State Department said, "the influence of nonstate criminal actors rivals or exceeds that of the government in up to 40 percent of the country."

"I'll vote for Otto Pérez Molina. For the last four years we've suffered from worse and worse security," says Luis Fernando Cashaj, a young resident of La Antigua, one of Guatemala's safest cities, who was recently robbed at knifepoint. "I think he's a sincere person and a military man. If we had better security, many of the smaller problems would go away."

Pérez Molina's plans rely on using intelligence to stop drug gangs. "I regard it as an advantage that the 30 years I was in the Army gave me the opportunity to know the whole country, to live inside, to be close to the problem," says Pérez Molina in an interview with the Monitor. "The training, discipline, order are important attributes when you're in government and need to make decisions."

But his military past is troubling to many. In July, human rights advocates filed a formal report with the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Convention Against Torture alleging that Pérez Molina used torture during the war. Some indigenous groups leveled similar charges about his tactics in their communities in the 1990s.

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