Former Guatemalan army general Otto Pérez Molina appears to have won his country’s presidential election, having bested his competitor Manuel Baldizón. Pérez Molina and his Patriot Party carried 54 percent of the vote in the November 6 run-off election as opposed to Baldizón’s 46 percent. The balloting reached a record for voter participation with 4.4 million ballots counted among 7.3 million eligible voters in the Central American republic.
Crime and poverty were the themes of the election in Guatemala that is coping with the legacy of decades of Cold War conflict, now coupled with government corruption, unemployment, and widespread narcoterror. Faced with apparent impunity for murder at the hands of criminal organizations such as MS-15, the millionaire Baldizón and leader of the populist Renewed Democratic Liberty party even called for the return of the death penalty for violent crimes. Civilians have taken to paying private security firms, or taking up arms themselves, to ensure the safety of their neighborhoods. Perez Molina, in advance of the election, estimated that as much as 40% of the country is under the control of narcoterrorists amid claims that he himself is a pawn of the drug traders.
Pérez Molina appeared sanguine following his victory, saying that he would do his utmost to ensure employment and peace in Guatemala. The former army officer had failed in his presidential bid in 2007 against former President Álvaro Colom, a civilian scion of a wealthy and influential political family. Pérez Molina served for 30 years in Guatemala’s military and was accused of serial violations of human rights as commander of the Ixil region of Guatemala. While no conclusive evidence has been offered in his case, it was in Ixil that confrontations between the army and Marxist guerrillas and democracy advocates yielded thousands of deaths, especially among Guatemala’s indigenous peoples.
In 1996, it was Pérez Molina who signed the historic peace accords with Guatemala’s insurgents, following 36 years of violence. He figured prominently in the coup that overthrew Gen. José Efraín Montt in 1983 and then again following the departure of President Jorge Serrano Elías. He will be sworn in as president in January 2012. Roxanna Baldetti will serve as his vice-president, the first woman to serve in that role.