Guatemala 'on brink of ruin' after 40 murdered

by Philip Sherwell in Guatemala City, Sunday Telegraph, 8/26/07


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 attacks.

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 civil war.

"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 Libre daily.

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 Molina.

"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 cell.

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: "Bye-bye, shorty."

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