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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 November 2007, 12:31 GMT
Shadows haunt Guatemalan election
By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

Guatemalans carry remains of relatives that had been in mass graves for burial on October 18 2007
Guatemala's 36-year-old civil war ended in 1996
Guatemalans go to the polls on Sunday to elect their sixth consecutive civilian president since the military withdrew from formal power in 1986.

Something to cheer, one would think. But the country's timid steps towards democratic rule mask a series of deep-seated problems.

Top of the list are organised crime, grim levels of public insecurity and deeply entrenched social divisions.

"'Guatemala is the saddest country in Latin America," writes a long-time observer of the region, Michael Reid, in his new book, Forgotten Continent.

He points to the "dark shadow" cast by Latin America's most brutal civil war in recent times, which left 200,000 people dead, most of them Mayan Indians.

The real power in the country, Mr Reid writes, consists in many ways of "shadowy networks linking corrupt former army officers and organised criminal gangs of drugs traffickers and money launderers".

It is a view shared by Amnesty International, who in an open letter to the presidential candidates said: "These clandestine groups openly flout the rule of law and have a knock-on effect on the administration of justice, as their freedom to act with impunity is unchallenged."

Youth gangs

Outgoing Vice-President Eduardo Stein has warned that unless something drastic is done, Guatemala runs the risk of becoming a "narco-state".

He is particularly concerned about criminal groups taking advantage of youth gangs known as "maras".

Alvaro Colom
Alvaro Colom is making his third bid for the presidency
"We have more and more evidence that organised crime is using the gangs as instruments for their dirty work on the streets," he told the BBC.

Alvaro Colom of the centre-left National Unity of Hope (UNE) party has had to spend much of the campaign denying his party's alleged links with drugs traffickers and organised crime.

In a campaign marked by mudslinging and insults, Mr Colom has accused his rival, retired Gen Otto Perez Molina, of the right-wing Patriotic Party, of sending him death threats.

Opinion polls suggest the contest is too close to call.

Curbing crime

Top of the electors' concerns is social violence. While Mr Colom tends to focus on social spending to reduce the murder rate of about 5,000 to 6,000 a year, Mr Perez Molina favours hard-line security measures known as "mano dura".

"Neither candidate has got a policy plan that is likely to make a substantial positive contribution," says Corinne Caumartin from the CRISE research centre at Oxford University.

"There's no evidence that a 'mano dura' approach has had a positive effect in other Central American countries."

Guatemala's challenges
Guatemala election posters
Last Latin American country on UN human development index
Tax income as percentage of GDP among lowest in the world
Murder rate of about 5,000 to 6,000 a year
More than 30 political parties have disappeared since 1985
$3.6bn remittances in 2006, roughly equal to all exports
Analysts say one of the many causes of the lack of progress on curbing crime is widespread poverty and income inequality.

The UN's 2006 Human Development Index placed Guatemala last in Spanish-speaking Latin America, below Honduras, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

International financial institutions like the IMF have consistently warned that Guatemala must increase its tax base to allow the state to sustain minimum levels of social spending.

But the country's tax income as a percentage of GDP remains at around 10% - one of the lowest in the world.

Guatemala's rich, mainly white, elite is not short of resources. According to the US Department of Commerce, Guatemala has the highest per capita use of private aircraft and helicopters in Central America.

But the wealthy families who control much of the economy have been reluctant to pay more taxes, arguing the money will get lost in corruption.

Hundreds of thousands of poor Guatemalans have joined the Central American exodus to the US.

Remittances sent back to their families provide a crucial bulwark to the economy.

The country would suffer a serious balance of payments problem if it were not for the $3.6bn (1.74bn) that came from workers abroad in 2006, approximately the same value as all Guatemala's exports that year.

Otto Perez Molina
Otto Perez Molina has promised a "strong fist" against crime
Yet another problem is the country's weak and volatile system of party politics.

Parties come and go at an alarming rate. More than 30 political parties have disappeared since 1985. Three of the successful parties of the 1980s and 1990s, the Christian Democrats, the MAS (Solidarity Action Movement) and the UCN (National Union of the Centre), have virtually disappeared.

Party loyalty is often short-lived. More than 40% of the 158 deputies in Congress changed their affiliation in the life of the current parliament.

Successful presidential candidates tend to be well-financed and dependent on slick media campaigns, but short on policies.

Shortage of funds was one of the reasons why the UN Nobel peace laureate and indigenous candidate Rigoberta Menchu was the surprise big loser in the first round of the elections, winning only 3% of the vote.

Silver lining?

However, there is one bright spark on the horizon.

After months of wrangling, in August the Guatemalan Congress voted to allow the establishment of a UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG.

Vice-president Eduardo Stein has been one of those most in favour of the new body.

"CICIG will not just bring to justice certain individuals," he told the BBC, "but it will also dismantle the parallel groups which have taken over Guatemalan institutions since the civil war."

He expects CICIG's investigations to start with the National Police, the prison service, and the General Migration Service, all of which he says have been penetrated by organised crime.

"'CICIG is a step in the right direction," says researcher Corinne Caumartin.

"But one of the main obstacles remains the continuing presence of these shadowy networks within the security forces, including the army."

Guatemala heads for run-off vote
10 Sep 07 |  Americas
Amnesty pleads for Guatemala calm
30 Aug 07 |  Americas
Guatemala campaign deaths mount
14 Aug 07 |  Americas
Crime dominates Guatemala campaign
10 May 07 |  Americas
Guatemala's epidemic of killing
09 Jun 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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