President-elect Otto Pérez Molina inherits poverty, crime issues in Guatemala (video)

More than 50 percent of Guatemala's population lives in poverty, and the country has an alarmingly high murder rate.  But Otto Pérez Molina is in a better position than his predecessors to deal with those problems, says guest blogger Mike Allison.

Moises Castillo/AP
Patriotic Party presidential candidate Otto Pérez Molina (left) and vice president candidate Roxana Baldetti celebrate their victory in Guatemala City on Monday. Mr. Pérez Molina won 55 percent of the vote, topping Manuel Baldizon, of the Democratic Freedom Revival party, who had 45 percent with 96 percent of the vote counted Sunday night, according to Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

On Sunday, just over 50 percent of registered voters turned out to help former general Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party (PP) defeat Manuel Baldizón of the Renewed, Democratic, Liberty (LIDER), 54 percent to 46 percent with 98 percent of the vote counted.

This year's election campaign was marred by violence (over 30 candidates and campaign-workers killed), the utter disregard of electoral laws (campaign spending and donor transparency, a failure to abide by the official start date) except when it suited them (Sandra Torres' disqualification), outlandish proposals (Mr. Baldizón's promise to lead Guatemala to the World Cup), and a one size fits all mano dura solution to crime and insecurity in Guatemala.

The president-elect does in fact confront a difficult situation (El Nuevo HeraldTelesurNYT). Over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty. The percentage of the population living in poverty is much greater in the countryside and among the indigenous. Even though Honduras and El Salvador are now much more violent, statistically speaking, Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in the world, especially for women. The country's economy is expected to grow by less than 3 percent this year which is among the region's lowest and that was before the most recent storm damaged infrastructure and crops. 

On the other hand, President-elect Pérez Molina probably has more going for him than President Alvaro Colom did upon taking office. First, while the country's murder rate remains alarmingly high, it is on a downwards trend. Guatemala is on pace to record 4,000-4,500 murders in 2011, down from 6,451 in 2009 and 5,960 in 2010. 

Mr. Colom added about 6,000 police officers during his term. However, after removing over 2,000 or so corrupt police officers, it's only a net of 4,000. To fulfill his promise of putting 10,000 more police on the streets and reaching 35,000, Pérez Molina will probably need to add 15,000 while continuing to remove those officers who are corrupt or are abusing their power (~5,000). Increasing the number of police should go a long way towards Pérez Molina’s goal of lowering the country’s murder rate by half during his four-year term.

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Second, Pérez Molina has Claudia Paz y Paz and Helen Mack. Ms. Paz y Paz was appointed by President Colom as the country’s first female attorney general and Ms. Mack as police reform commissioner. Even though some Guatemalan elites have tried to sabotage their efforts to reform the judicial system and police force, from all indications they have done an exceptional job. While not completely eradicated, extrajudicial killings carried out by the police and security forces appear to have declined significantly. 

Guatemala has also made important steps to address its past. President Colom apologized on behalf of the Guatemalan state to former President Jacobo Arbenz's family for its complicity in the 1954 CIA-led coup that removed him from office. Among other things, the state has promised to more accurately depict Arbenz’ accomplishments and faults in schools. 

Four former military officials have also been sentenced to over 6,000 years in prison for one of the worst civil war massacres, the killing of over 200 men, women, and children at Dos Erres in December 1982. Authorities also arrested several high-ranking officials, including former General Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, former intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez, and former general and de facto president Oscar Mejia, for their responsibility in the execution of the government’s 1980s scorched earth program.

Finally, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has had its mandate extended until 2013. While not perfect, CICIG and its commissioner, Francisco Dall'Anese, have taken important steps to provide the Guatemalan people and its institutions with the tools necessary to tackle impunity.

While these are some areas where Pérez Molina can continue the work of Colom, he also has to do more than Colom did to reform the country’s tax base, to promote transparency and the institutionalization of the government’s social programs, to tackle land inequality and respect for indigenous rights, and to provide long-term human security to the people of the Petén, Alta Verapaz, and the rest of Guatemala.

--- Mike Allison is an associate professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

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