A private security guard stands in front of campaign signs of Otto Perez Molina, presidential candidate of the Patriotic Party, center, and Manuel Baldizon, presidential candidate of the Democratic Freedom Revival party in Guatemala City. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Retired army general Otto Perez is leading in the polls going into Guatemala’s presidential runoff election Sunday, and the tough-talking former chief of military intelligence has promised an iron-fisted confrontation with the criminal gangs that have stoked soaring violence in the poor Central American nation.

On Sunday, Nicaraguans also go to the ballot box, and though the constitution there technically bars reelection, President Daniel Ortega, the prickly former leftist turned dynastic business impresario, is almost certain to win another term. The only question is how big his victory will be.

While Perez won Guatemala’s first-round vote in September and is ahead by about 10 points in the latest surveys, his challenger, multimillionaire hotelier and right-wing populist Manuel Baldizon, has pledged an equally tough stance against the drug-trafficking and crime mafias, saying he supports the death penalty and wants executions to be televised.

Guatemala, where a contract killing costs a few hundred dollars and kidnappers pursue the rich, the middle classes and the poor alike, has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. The cars all have tinted windows, and cities are ghost towns at night. Armed guards are ubiquitous; experts say the country has 100,000 private-security agents, standing sentry not only at mansions and banks but at pizza joints and toy stores.

“Both candidates are advocating for the death penalty, but I ask: In a country with 18 murders a day, this will help reduce the violence?” said Eduardo Stein, a diplomat and former vice president of Guatemala.

Against this backdrop, additional violence is spurred by drug-trafficking syndicates that are increasingly engaged in moving cocaine through Guatemala, Honduras and Belize to the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised that the U.S. government will help. In a meeting with international donors and diplomats in June, Guatemala’s outgoing president, Alvaro Colom, begged the world not to ignore the bloodshed in the region caused by lawlessness and smuggling, and abetted by the insidious arrival of Mexican cartels.

At the time, the seven participating countries proposed 22 projects, which would cost $900 million, money the impoverished Central American nations did not have to spend.

“For us, it is the difference between life and death,” Colom said then. Few of the projects have been started, however, and funding levels remain low.

“Security is still the big issue, but that does not make General Perez a sure winner, because both candidates are promising ‘mano dura,’ the iron fist,” said Frank La Rue, a human rights activist and U.N. special rapporteur in Guatemala.

In October polling by Borge and Associates in Guatemala City, more than 80 percent of the 2,500 respondents said they support the iron-fist policy.

In Guatemala, that means a return of the once-feared military, which participated in the worst human rights abuses of the country’s 36-year civil war — a conflict that pitted leftist guerrillas and their supporters among the Maya villages against the army and paramilitaries backed by business elites and large landowners. About 200,000 people died and an additional 50,000 were “disappeared.”

In a remarkable turnaround, many citizens now applaud the arrival of the military in their towns to confront armed gangs of swaggering narcos.

“The difference now is that the violence is touching everybody. Unlike the war, it is dangerous for rich and poor,” said Adriana Beltran, an expert on citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“The concern is that possible human rights violations are not really a concern to most Guatemalans because there is such a cry for better security,” Beltran said.

Both candidates have promised to reform and support the police, as well as the military, and to strengthen a weak judicial and penal system.

In Nicaragua, the 65-year-old Ortega is expected to easily win reelection against his challenger, Fabio Gadea, 79, who runs a news radio station and heads the Independent Liberal Party Alliance, a consortium of former Sandinistas and business conservatives opposed to “Danielismo.”

Ortega, the former Sandinista commandante and thorn in the side of the U.S. government, was one of the last world leaders, along with his patron, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to offer support for former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

But these days, there is another, mellower side to Ortega, who has used the gift of Venezuelan oil to prop up the economy. Good coffee and sugar harvests, combined with a friendly approach to business interests, have also helped the country achieve modest growth despite the global downturn, and this has allowed the president to distribute food, grant property titles and provide better housing to the poor.

“In a country with 50 percent poverty, these are important programs, and they have had a political impact,” said Carlos Chamorro, a former Sandinista and now an investigative journalist and frequent critic of Ortega.

Chamorro says that if Ortega wins by a wide margin and takes additional seats in parliament, he will be able to change the constitution and further consolidate his power.

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.