Guatemalans frustrated by soaring crime go the polls Sunday as the front-running candidates promise to aggressively confront the mafias that have turned the poor Central American state into a killing field.

The No. 1 issue is violence, according to opinion polls. 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.

The front-running candidate is a conservative former Guatemalan military general, Otto Perez, who has campaigned on the promise of bringing a “mano dura,” or iron fist, to the fight against criminals.

Opinion polls predict that Perez will run well ahead of rivals Manuel Baldizon and Eduardo Suger, although he must win at least 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a Nov. 6 runoff.

Perez, 60, 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.

“We have more dead today than during the armed conflict,” said Frank La Rue, a human rights activist and U.N. special rapporteur in Guatemala.

The 36-year-long civil war that ended in 1996 left an estimated 200,000 dead and was notorious for its massacres, committed mostly by the military and its allies, the fearsome paramilitary groups. As many as 50,000 people were “disappeared.”

“The trouble is, people think that the mano dura will be applied to someone else. They don’t realize that when someone offers the iron fist it applies to everyone, even against the people who voted for him,” La Rue said. “Yes, it will be a government of order, but order imposed with violence is undemocratic. It is an historic retreat for our country.”

But polls show Perez clearly in the lead, and many ordinary Guatemalans are ready to see the violence stemmed. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is being a bus driver in Guatemala City; hundreds have died in holdups. More than 100,000 guards armed with shotguns protect even the humblest cafe and stall. When Guatemalan troops have entered into lawless areas, the locals have applauded their arrival.

Perez lost his 2007 bid against outgoing President Alvaro Colom, who has pleaded with the U.S. government and international donors to help his country fight back against powerful criminal trafficking gangs.

Colom has warned that the future of his country hangs in the balance. “We’ve been called a narco-state, but consumers, they are narcos, too,” Colom told the BBC last week.

Absent from the ballot is Sandra Torres, the former first lady, who divorced Colom in April to get around a constitutional prohibition against close relatives of presidents running for the same office. Torres said she still loved her husband but loved Guatemala more. Critics saw a crude power play. The Guatemala Supreme Court ruled against her.

Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.