MEXICO CITY — A tough-talking former army general who promises an iron-fisted stance against drug mafias and crime gangs has won election as the next president of Guatemala, while the incumbent president was headed toward a decisive win in Nicaragua -- despite constitutional prohibitions against reelection.
With almost all valid ballots counted, Otto Perez Molina, an ex-chief of military intelligence and a graduate of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia, took 54 percent of the vote against his challenger, millionaire populist Manuel Baldizon, with 46 percent.
Roxana Baldetti, a representative in the congress, will become the first woman elected vice president of Guatemala, to serve alongside Perez.
Perez, 61, won big in the capital city, where a crime wave has rattled citizens who responded to the winning candidate’s promise to bring a “mano dura” or iron fist to tackling the rampant criminality that gives Guatemala one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Perez, who will take office in January, said he will propose a regional security strategy to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. He also pledged to reform the corruption-plagued police and to continue to employ the once-fearsome Guatemala military in the fight against crime.
U.S. diplomats and international drug enforcement officials have expressed growing alarm that Guatemala, already a weak state, is losing control to transnational crime organizations based in Mexico, which increasing use Guatemala as a trafficking corridor.
In meetings in Guatemala earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to help -- though aid from international donors has been slow to arrive.
Experts say that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine that arrives in Mexico on its way to the United States crosses a wild, lawless Guatemalan border.
In early results in Nicaragua, President and Sandinista revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega had won 64 percent of the ballots cast, compared with 29 percent for his nearest challenger, Fabio Gadea.
Nicaragua’s Constitution bars leaders from serving consecutive terms and limits them two terms. But Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, which Ortega controls by appointments, ruled in 2009 that these limits violated human rights.
Ortega did not immediately declare victory, though he received congratulations from his closest ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose country has supplied the lifeblood of aid and free petroleum that keeps the Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, running. Cuban president Raul Castro also offered a round of applause for his friend Ortega.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations, said in a statement that “this so-called election was a complete farce.”
According to Reuters news agency in Managua, Gadea supporters accused Ortega's party of stuffing ballot boxes and making it hard for conservatives to vote.
There were reports that several polling stations were burned in the north and central provinces. Election monitors from the Organization of American States said they were kept out of polling stations. An observer from the European Union expressed disappointment in an electoral process he called less than transparent.
Widespread irregularities and voter fraud in municipal elections in 2008 led the U.S. government to pull $60 million in development aid and grants.
But Ortega has proved popular, by providing anti-poverty programs and helping citizens gain legal titles to their homes and land. The Nicaraguan economy has also reported steady growth and Ortega has damped his socialist fire to work more closely with business interests, including many former revolutionaries, who are now busy making money.