Perez Molina and Ortega's political differences mask similarities on crime
Both Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina, a former general, and Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist rebel leader, are apt to rely on military power to fight crime.
Guatemala and Nicaragua elected two former military commanders on November 6, whose vastly different political backgrounds belie their similarities on matters concerning organized crime.Skip to next paragraph
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Guatemala's General Otto Perez Molina spent much of his military career fighting leftist guerrillas in the highlands. He is part of what is known in Guatemala as the "30-70 generation," i.e., those that think 30 percent of the country is "beyond redemption."
How much Mr. Perez Molina has put this philosophy into practice is subject of widespread debate (and fear) in Guatemala. Some say as an officer in the army he took part in "genocide" of indigenous villagers in the early 1980s in a campaign that wiped out dozens of communities in the most brutal phase of the country's three-decade long war.
A widely circulated video clip of Perez Molina following a battle with rebels shows him as callous and possibly responsible for the line of dead bodies that flank him. He is also facing accusations that he participated in the 1992 disappearance and murder of a guerrilla fighter who was married to a US citizen.
But Perez Molina is much more complicated than his foes would paint him. He was largely responsible for aligning the various hard-line military factions behind the peace process with the rebels that ended the war in 1996. And he has distanced himself from ex-military officers who have been connected to organized criminal groups, popularly known as CIACS.
Still, Perez Molina is hardly clean. His party has been accused of being connected to the Mendoza clan, a powerful criminal family in Guatemala. And he has been accused of running his own CIACS. No accusations against the former general have ever led to a prosecution, however, and Perez Molina says they are part of a near-constant smear campaign against him.
The trajectory of Perez Molina's counterpart in Nicaragua is equally vexing. After helping command the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to overthrow longtime Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, Daniel Ortega has struggled to keep a lid on his own authoritarian tendencies, and allegations of connections to organized crime have dogged him throughout his career in politics.
During his time as president in the late 1980s, his government imprisoned hundreds of "political" dissenters, ruthlessly attacked Miskito indigenous communities suspected of assisting US-backed counter-revolutionary forces, and systematically attempted to silence the media.
Ironically, Mr. Ortega now draws comparisons to Mr. Somoza, and, while that is a stretch, there are similarities. Like Somoza, he has been accused of widespread electoral fraud. Also like Somoza, Ortega seems bent on making Nicaragua his personal fiefdom, buying or obtaining stakes in numerous business ventures ranging from media to real estate.
Dissenters are not jailed as much as they are threatened with exclusion from an economic boom that is, in part, due to nearly $500 million in annual oil subsidies the Nicaraguan government receives from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez government, a staunch Ortega ally.
Like his Guatemalan counterpart, Ortega has not escaped accusations of being connected to organized crime. FSLN strongmen Tomas Borge and Lenin Cerna are alleged to have ties to Colombian drug traffickers dating back to the 1980s. Most recently, a US diplomatic cable released by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks said that the Sandinistas had engineered the release of several suspected traffickers by buying off judges using proceeds from a drug seizure. Accusations of so-called "narco-liberations" continued throughout Ortega's recent term in power.