Return of Guatemalan military looms as left falters

GUATEMALA CITY,  (Reuters) – The uphill struggle of Guatemala’s ruling leftists to field a candidate puts the  military establishment on the verge of regaining the presidency  just as probes into the country’s brutal civil war begin.

Otto Perez

The centre-left Union of Hope Party (UNE) may have no  candidate at all for September’s election if an appeal by  former first lady Sandra Torres fails to overturn a court  decision barring her from the presidency.

Already well behind in polls, her absence would nearly guarantee victory for former general Otto Perez, 61, of the right-wing Patriot Party (PP), raising fears that nas-cent efforts to prosecute military officials for crimes committed  during the war will founder.

Nearly a quarter million mostly Mayan villagers died in the  1960-1996 conflict.

Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer, said she expected  Perez to obstruct ongoing civil war cases if elected.

“He’ll suggest that the war is over and everyone should get  together. But without any justice that’s exactly the same as saying everyone should get together after World War Two without Nuremberg” where Nazis leaders were tried, she said.

UNE hopeful Torres has been the closest rival to Perez in  the presidential race, albeit an unpopular one. A June survey  by Guatemalan pollster Prodatos showed her lagging the  frontrunner with 15.1 percent support to Perez’s 42.5 percent.

Torres’s bid has been in serious doubt since there is a  constitutional rule that prevents family members of the  president from taking power.

To skirt this, Torres in March tearily announced she had divorced President Alvaro Colom, who by law cannot run for a consecutive term. But a court ruled against her last month and  unless her appeal succeeds and her popularity recovers, Perez  could win in a first round vote on Sept. 11.

In a country deeply scarred by the army’s role in the civil  war, many voters back Perez in the hope he can restore law and  order in areas ravaged by violent incursions by Mexican drug  gangs.

“Guatemala needs a strong man to govern this country,” said Juan Mancilla, 54, a thrift store owner among thousands of  cheering Perez supporters at a recent rally in the capital.

“We’re under attack and he’s the only one offering  security. If Perez doesn’t win … you’ll see how the criminals and drug dealers take control of this country,” he added.

IRON FIST      

Perez has pledged to act against organized crime in one of  Latin America’s most troubled countries with an “iron fist”.

Colom’s government denies crime is growing in Guatemala, citing a drop in murders to 6,502 in 2010 from 6,948 in 2009.  But that is still more than 44 murders per every 100,000 people, nearly nine times the rate in the United States.

Voters are worried about the violence.

In a recent poll, two-thirds of Guatemalans said security  was their biggest concern heading into the election.

Mindful of the need to strengthen the army against cartels, Colom has said he would repeal a law passed in 2004 limiting  the military budget to 0.33 percent of Guatemala’s GDP.  Watch-dogs fear the army may exploit this under Perez.

During Guatemala’s civil war, a U.N.-backed truth  commission found 85 percent of the rights violations were  committed by the military, and after years of prevarication,  the government has begun to prosecute implicated officials.

On July 25, four former special forces officers became the  first suspects to stand trial for the massacre of over 200  people in the village of Las Dos Erres in late 1982.

Human rights groups say Perez, who served in the army until  1998, was involved in wartime abuses, an accusation he denies.

In July, the Guatemalan indigenous group, Waqib Kej  presented a letter to the United Nations accusing Perez of  human rights violations in the Quiche region during the war. Perez has dismissed his detractors.

“If there are accusations, I don’t know about them,” he  told the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre. “I was director of  intelligence and my job was to uphold the constitution.”

 ELECTION VIOLENCE      

The war remains a touchy subject in Guatemala.

Although the government in June declassified over 12,000  military documents from 1956-1996, it has kept information  secret from 1982-83, the war’s bloodiest phase. Critics say  Colom has been reluctant to investigate war crimes.

But some political analysts say Guatemala has enough laws  in place to prevent abuses if Perez wins a four-year term.

Violence often plagues elections in Guatemala and death  threats against candidates and poll monitors are common, making  the outcome uncertain. Several experts also point out that many  voters are only backing Perez to keep Torres out.

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