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Retired general Otto Perez leads in Guatemala election, faces runoff

Otto Perez Molina, presidential candidate for Guatemala’s Patriotic Party, shows his ink-stained finger after voting in the Sept. 11 election. (Moises Castillo/AP)

Retired army general Otto Perez, a former chief of military intelligence, led Guatemala’s presidential field in Sunday’s election but could not garner the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a November runoff.

With 98 percent of the paper ballots counted by Monday, Perez took 36 percent of the vote, less than the most recent polls had predicted. He will probably face Manuel Baldizon, a well-to-do businessman who campaigned under a populist banner promising more help for the poor. Baldizon had 23 percent of the vote.

The No. 1 issue in the election was violence and insecurity, according to opinion surveys. Armed gangs, bolstered by the incursion of Mexican drug cartels, have taken over towns; more than 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States crosses the Guatemala border. Martial law has been declared in the provinces.

“Insecurity has reached alarming levels. For the vast majority of citizens, there are only two issues: employment and security,” said Fernando Giron Soto, a security analyst at the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala City, on the eve of the election.

Perez, 60, has promised to employ a “mano dura,” or iron fist, to combat the country’s soaring crime. During the campaign, he said outgoing President Alvaro Colom had not done enough to improve security.

Guatemala’s homicide rate is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Homegrown criminal gangs sow terror in the cities and villages, and few are prosecuted in killings.

Perez was the head of military intelligence during the civil war years, but he was also one of the leaders who negotiated a peace treaty in 1996 ending decades of strife between right-wing military governments and leftists, labor groups, students and the Maya.

Guatemala’s military was partially dismantled during the past decade as a part of the peace accord. But troops have returned to provinces to chase narcotics traffickers and gangs.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.

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