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The BBC's Peter Greste
"The choice will be controversial abroad"
 real 28k

Friday, 14 January, 2000, 20:28 GMT
Populist president takes over in Guatemala

Alfonso Portillo Alfonso Portillo enjoys widespread popular support

A man whose party was founded by one of Guatemala's bloodiest dictators has been sworn in as the country's new president.

Alfonso Portillo, 48, of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), won a clear victory with 68% of the vote in December's election, in which the outgoing President, Alvaro Arzu, was constitutionally barred from standing.

Mr Portillo won despite an admission that he shot dead two men in Mexico in 1982 in what he said was self-defence.

He was a fugitive from justice until a Mexican judge declared the case "inactive" in 1995.

He is the first president elected since the end in 1996 of a 36-year civil war between leftist rebels and the government which left an estimated 200,000 people dead.


Mr Portillo, a former university professor, is known as a right-wing populist, and promises to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor as well as combating crime.

But his close ties to former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala with an iron fist from 1982 to 1983, have raised fears in some quarters that the peace accords which ended the civil unrest could unravel.

Rios Montt Efrain Rios Montt campaigned on behalf of Mr Portillo

Human rights groups, including 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, have accused Mr Rios Montt of genocide against Mayan Indians stemming from the army's "scorched earth" campaign to crush guerrilla support in the countryside.

Mr Portillo, who is a member of the FRG, says he wants to build a broad government beyond party lines.

Political pact

But on the same day as the new president was inaugurated, Mr Rios Montt was sworn in as the new president of the Congress in a political comeback that worries human rights defenders.

The FRG has a clear majority in Congress with 63 of the 113 seats.

Mr Portillo has announced that he has agreed a "political pact" with Mr Rios Montt, covering economic policy, decentralisation and law and order.

He did not reveal policy details, but emphasised that if Mr Rios Montt "at any time gives priority to his personal interests, or those of the party or his group," or if Mr Portillo himself did not fulfil the policies agreed, then the pact would no longer hold.

"We will work in separate spheres," Mr Portillo said.

"I will focus on the executive. Rios Montt will focus on the legislative. We will respect each other's differences of opinions."

Diverse cabinet

Mr Portillo has announced a pluralistic cabinet that included former guerrilla sympathisers, Mayan scholars, human rights activists and free-market advocates.

Gabriel Orellana, a Rios Montt ally, was named as foreign minister.

Analysts say voters, weary of rising prices and government corruption, overlooked Mr Portillo's personal background in exchange for his promises to rule in favour of rural peasants and working-class Guatemalans.

After his victory, Mr Portillo pledged to dismantle an elite presidential security unit known as the Estado Mayor, which had been accused of committing atrocities during the civil war.

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See also:
27 Dec 99 |  Americas
'Killer' earns landslide victory in Guatemala
26 Feb 99 |  Americas
Guatemala 'genocide' probe blames state

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