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.
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.
"Otto Pérez as a candidate would not exist if our society was more democratic, more mature, with a more critical culture. But we are not," says Álvaro Vásquez, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Guatemala City. "This explains why a general can again take the reins of destiny" in Guatemala.
August opinion polls gave Pérez Molina 39.6 percent of the vote, far ahead of his competitors. He led Manuel Baldizón by 21 points. Eduardo Suger was in third place. If he does not get 50 percent of the vote, he will face a November runoff.
Pérez Molina's lead can in part be explained by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court's refusal to let ruling party candidate Sandra Torres run in the presidential race. The ex-wife of current President Álvaro Colom was barred in August from running after she divorced Mr. Colom, in what critics say was a ploy to subvert voting rules barring relatives from holding office consecutively. Ms. Torres had been No. 2 in the polls.
While Guatemalans who lived through the war might react strongly to allegations of abuse against Pérez Molina, the conflict isn't even a memory for many voters. Seventy percent of Guatemalans are under age 30.
That has given Pérez Molina space to court the youth vote. "Pérez Molina has reinvented himself," says Jean-Marie Simon, a photographer and human rights worker in the 1980s. Voters were "in diapers" when the alleged war crimes took place, she says.
Businesses will probably back Pérez Molina, too, as companies can spend 3 to 5 percent of their budgets on security, but many would prefer a leader with stronger economic credentials. "There is no one that is stealing our hearts," says Jose Fahsen, a printing company director. "Unfortunately, it has come down to who is the least bad. I think the success he has is that he's selling himself as a person who can bring order. The president is someone many are waiting to be the savior, but that's not going to happen."