Guatemala 'on brink of ruin' after
by Philip Sherwell in Guatemala
City, Sunday Telegraph
Hector Montenegro took a break from election
campaigning in Guatemala last week - to bury his murdered teenage
daughter. Her killers had pulled out her fingernails, tied her
hands behind her back, slit her throat, then stuffed the corpse
into the boot of a taxi with two other victims of similarly brutal
The distraught congressional candidate
for the leading party was in no doubt that 15-year-old Marta Cristina
was the latest victim of a particularly violent election campaign,
even by the standards of a country that endured a bloody 36-year
"I am sure that her killing was politically
motivated," said Mr Montenegro, 71, a veteran activist for
the poor and elderly. "I am used to the threatening phone
calls, the insults, the people calling me a communist. But what
sort of animal could do this to a teenage girl?"
Forty candidates or senior party officials
have already been murdered during the campaign - a grim tally
that does not include supporters or relatives such as Mr Montenegro's
daughter. With two weeks to go before the September 9 poll, the
death toll makes this the bloodiest election in the country's
history, as drug lords, crime gangs and political rivals seek
to buy power, settle scores and intimidate enemies.
This is a nation where delivery boys pushing
crates of soft drinks across the road require the protection of
an armed guard carrying a pump-action shotgun - a scene played
out on the journey to Mr Montenegro's home just south of the capital
Guatemala City last week. In a nearby market, paramilitary police
with just six weeks training have been deployed, as the authorities
try to restore a semblance of law and order.
Guatemala's decline into lawlessness,
since the hopeful days of the 1996 peace accords, resulted last
year in more than 8,000 people being murdered or disappearing,
from a population of 13 million. Now it is dominating the campaigns
to elect a president, congress and hundreds of mayors.
And as the political casualty count grows,
so do the presidential prospects of Otto Perez Molina, a silver-haired
former military intelligence chief who is promising a security
crackdown under the campaign slogan of "The Iron Fist".
Gen Perez Molina, who heads the Patriotic
Party, is making up ground on the long-time frontrunner, Alvaro
Colom, 56, a centre-Left former businessman who lost two close
family members to political assassinations during a civil war
that claimed at least 200,000 lives.
The latest poll figures last week showed
that, with 37 per cent, Mr Colom's once comfortable lead was down
to eight points, with Gen Perez Molina on 29 per cent. Alejandro
Giammattei, the candidate of the Grand National Alliance, the
party of the outgoing president Oscar Berger, was a distant third
on 13 per cent, according to the poll for the independent Prensa
With a run-off between the frontrunners
likely, as neither candidate will secure the necessary majority
vote from a field of 14 in the first ballot, the head-to-head
polls indicate a dead heat as the momentum moves towards Gen Perez
"This country is a captured state
- captured by the mafia and drug gangs. And it's in danger of
becoming a failed state," Gen Perez Molina told The Sunday
Telegraph. "Organised crime has made a concerted effort to
penetrate the parties and the state. This election will determine
whether Guatemala is on the road to become a narco-state."
Last week he flew in by helicopter for
a series of rallies on the steamy and dusty Pacific coastal plains
where drug traffickers are trying to buy up local politicians.
"We must make the decision now to save Guatemala," he
told a crowd waving banners bearing the party's clenched fist
emblem in the main square in Chiquimulilla. "I have the iron
fist, but also the intelligence and the heart to defend our country."
Manuel Giron, 42, a shopkeeper in Guatemala
City, said: "Nobody wants to go back to the old days of the
military dictators, but we need a tough guy to bring security
back to this country. After the civil war ended, a lot of people
never thought they would vote for a general for president. But
crime is out of control, so I'm backing the Iron Fist party."
But his opponents criticise the general
as a single-issue candidate and cite his background as a high-ranking
officer during the civil war, when the military committed repeated
atrocities against Left-wing insurgents. Soldiers under his command
have been accused of extra-judicial killings, but no link has
been made directly to him.
The general's rivals agree, however, that
the stakes are equally high as drug money floods the country.
"Guatemala is a few steps away from ruin. The battle is hard
now, but in a few years it could be impossible," said Jose
Carlos Marroquin, director of strategy for Mr Colom's National
Union of Hope (known as UNE).
In the Vienna Cafe, a politicians' haunt
in Guatemala City, he explained the drug gangs' tactics of "buying"
mayors. "If you control the municipalities, you control the
local police and officials," he said.
The anti-American populism that has featured
prominently in other Latin American countries, promoted by the
oil wealth of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, plays no part
in Guatemalan politics. The economy depends on the $3 billion
in remittances sent home each year by Guatemalans living in America.
Both Mr Colom and Gen Perez Molina are pro-American.
Rather, this election is about violence
and corruption. The chiefs of the police, prison and tax services
all acknowledge that their organisations are riddled with corrupt
officials and crimes are rarely prosecuted. The government recently
turned to the United Nations for help in supplying legal experts
in various fields in an unprecedented attempt to jump-start its
stalled justice system. In the most notorious recent example of
its failings, four police detectives were arrested on charges
of murdering three Salvadoran congressmen - only to be shot dead
execution-style inside their supposedly maximum-security prison
Mr Marroquin can vouch personally for
the dangers involved in taking on corruption and drug money -
he survived an assassination attempt backed by former senior UNE
members whom he had booted out in a clean-up of his own party.
"I can tell you that at the presidential level, we are clean.
But can I assure you that everyone running for mayor for UNE is
clean? No, I cannot," he said.
By far the most attacks have been suffered
by UNE and the smaller party of Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace
laureate and campaigner for the rights of indigenous Mayans, who
is running a distant fourth in the presidential polls. Mr Marroquin
said his party had been targeted because of its frontrunner status
and its refusal to accept drug money.
Indeed, in the murky and dangerous world
of Guatemalan politics, Mr Montenegro, a UNE candidate for congress,
has his own suspicions about who is to blame for his daughter's
murder. "Who has most to gain from the creating insecurity
in the country? The candidates who say they will bring security
back to the country, of course," he said.
A former teacher who belonged to a Left-wing
rebel group during the long insurgency, Mr Montenegro said he
thought he had seen the last of the death squads and killings
when the civil war ended.
But as the rain from the outlying flanks
of Hurricane Dean rattled the corrugated iron roof of his single-storey
house last week, the diminutive figure put his head in his hands
and wept as he remembered his daughter, who left his office on
the day she disappeared with her usual affectionate parting words: