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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 November 2007, 16:51 GMT
Task for new Guatemalan president
James Painter
Latin America analyst, BBC

The new centre-left president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, wants his country to be a model of social democracy with a "Mayan face".

Guatemala's new President, Alvaro Colom, 5 November 2007
Mr Colom says he will regularly consult spiritual leaders

This, he hopes, will strengthen national unity in a country long divided by enormous social and racial differences.

The 56-year-old Mr Colom has a background in the textile business and does not belong to any of the 23 Mayan ethnic groups who make up more than 40% of the population.

But he has been ordained a Mayan priest, and drew much of his electoral support from the rural areas where poverty amongst indigenous groups is deep-rooted.

Mr Colom, who will start his four-year term on 14 January, says he will regularly consult a group of spiritual leaders, known as the Mayan Elders National Council.

He is just the latest in a growing band of left-leaning leaders in Latin America. His brand of politics is likely to be much closer to that of the moderate President Lula of Brazil than the socialist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, however.

Enormous task

He is in favour of the free market wherever possible, but wants to increase social spending on job creation, health and education.

His task is enormous. By many measurements, Guatemala is the poorest country in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Over half of Guatemala's 13-million-strong population lives on less than US$2 a day.

Analysts say he will be hard-pressed to find the public money to invest. He has announced a "fiscal pact", but there are huge historical obstacles to raising taxes. Guatemala has one of the lowest tax takes in the world. The country's rich businessmen and landowners argue they shouldn't hand over money to a corrupt state.

Colom supporters celebrate in the streets of Guatemala City
Mr Colom drew much of his support from rural areas

His short-term priority is to tackle rampant lawlessness, which was the main issue in the electoral campaign. Any social and economic reforms would be very difficult in a climate of about 17 murders a day, ubiquitous impunity and widespread corruption in the security forces.

Observers are already questioning whether the mild-mannered Mr Colom will have enough drive and charisma to purge the police and judiciary, and take on the country's drugs traffickers.

'A war operation'

As if to prove his seriousness, he has already announced he will send in the army to remote jungle areas, particularly near the border with Mexico. At least 200 tons of cocaine are estimated to be transported annually from Colombia through Guatemala to Mexico and the United States. Poor radar and lack of resources make it an ideal transit point.

"You have to go in with the army like a war operation if you really want to get the territory back," Mr Colom told the Reuters news agency. Close relations with the US government will be essential to make any progress. But a Guatemalan version of Plan Colombia or the Plan Merida currently being discussed with the Mexican government is unlikely to materialise.

Mr Colom is fully aware that organised crime is rampant, and in his words, "lynching the country". His policy is to increase social spending and implement a review of the security forces and judiciary. But if he doesn't produce results, he could come under pressure to follow the more hard-line tactics of his defeated rival, Otto Perez Molina. Some 47% of voters supported such an approach.

On average, 17 murders a day are committed
At least 200 tons of cocaine are estimated to be transported annually from Colombia through Guatemala to Mexico and the United States
Less than 2% of murder cases are currently solved

Much international attention will focus on whether the new International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, will have any success at bringing criminals to justice. Less than 2% of murder cases are currently solved.

Mr Colom is in favour of CICIG, but some politicians in the current Congress were against it, largely on the grounds of national sovereignty.

In general, he may run into problems in the new Congress. His party, the National Unity of Hope, will have the largest group of deputies, but will not have a working majority. That means he could be stymied on important pieces of legislation.

Mr Colom is the sixth consecutive civilian president to be elected since 1986. All the previous incumbents were of a right-wing tint, so his presidency will mark a break with the past. But he could struggle to make any impression on Guatemala's deep-seated social and economic problems, which lay at the root of Guatemala's civil war, which raged from 1960 to 1996 and was one of the bloodiest in recent Latin American history.

Centrist claims win in Guatemala
05 Nov 07 |  Americas
Shadows haunt Guatemalan election
03 Nov 07 |  Americas
EU alarm at Guatemala violence
24 Aug 07 |  Americas
Crime dominates Guatemala campaign
10 May 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
06 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Guatemala
06 Nov 07 |  Country profiles

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