The first round of presidential elections on Sunday comes at a time of rising murder and crime
Riot police talk with a boy during a patrol on a street in Santa Catarina Mita / Reuters
Front-runner Otto Pérez Molina won 36% of the vote in first round of Guatemala's presidential elections on Sunday, and will face off against second place finisher Manuel Baldizón in the second round in November. Though winning the runoff election will not be easy for either candidate (both have to build coalitions to clinch a second-round victory); far trickier will be facing Guatemala's long list of challenges, topped by insecurity.
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Guatemala's murder rate has more than doubled in the last twenty years, reaching a high in 2009 when nearly 6,500 people were killed - 17 a day -- more than in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past four years the government of Álvaro Colom has been unable to quell the violence or bring its perpetrators to justice. During the campaign the leading presidential candidates advocated a mano dura, or iron fist security policy, with Pérez Molina as its most forceful proponent (his Patriot Party has a clenched fist as its emblem). He even proposed bringing back the notorious military task forces used against guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s, this time to take on drug traffickers.
It is unlikely this strategy will work. Guatemala's military today doesn't have the capacity to ramp up its public safety functions. As a part of the 1996 peace agreements (ending 36 years of civil war) the military agreed to downsize. The current force stands at 17,000 troops (roughly 60 percent less than 1990 levels). Earlier this year, when the government called a state of siege in the northern province of Alta Verapaz taken hostage by traffickers, the military could only send 600 soldiers in to patrol the area - less than one tenth the size of the Mexican military force sent to fight the La Familia cartel in Michoacán in 2006. After the operation, President Colom himself admitted that the military could not match the drug traffickers' vast resources, noting "just the weapons seized in Alta Verapaz are more than those of some army brigades."