May 21, 2013
Crime fears color Guatemala's presidential vote
Guatemalans anxious for relief from out-of-control crime voted for a new president on Sunday with the leading candidates promising to crack down on gangs and drug cartels terrorizing the country.
A 60-year-old retired general who heads the right-wing Patriot Party, Otto Perez, is leading in opinion polls after the ruling center-leftist party failed to field a candidate. But Perez may fall short of the 50 percent of votes plus one needed to avoid a November run-off.
Electoral officials are hoping for a high turnout given a record 7.3 million registered voters, but long lines that snaked around voting centers in the capital in the morning petered out in the afternoon.
Polls closed at 6 p.m. local time and the first official results are expected around 10 p.m. local time (0400 GMT).
No presidential hopeful in the coffee- and sugar-exporting nation has won in the first round since Guatemala returned to democracy in 1986 after decades of military rule, but Perez says he has a chance to make history.
"We see a significant possibility of winning in the first round but it depends on the will of the Guatemalan people," Perez said as he cast his vote at a school in the capital, mobbed by television cameras and supporters.
Perez's main rival is Manuel Baldizon, a well-off hotel owner and former congressman who sports slicked-back hair and square glasses, and promises handouts to the elderly and poor.
Baldizon, who defected from the ruling National Unity Party in 2008 to found the Renewed Democratic Liberation Party (Lider), voted on the island of Flores in the jungle-covered region of Peten where he was born, near Guatemala's lawless northern border with Mexico.
Campaigning focused on Guatemala's losing battle against street gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking cartels moving South American cocaine up to the United States.
About a dozen people are murdered every day in the country of 14.7 million and Perez gained traction by spouting a slogan of a "firm hand" -- or "mano dura" -- against crime in jingles, slick TV ads and ubiquitous orange campaign posters.
Similar policies in other Central American countries, like El Salvador, have meant sweeps by security forces to jail youths just for belonging to street gangs.
"I like the idea of a 'firm hand,'" 30-year-old secretary Andrea Velasquez said at the polling station where Perez voted. "We need a military solution to end the violence."
The run-up to the election, which will also select lawmakers and mayors, has been marked by more than 30 political murders since the start of the year, according to the independent human rights ombudsman. One former mayoral candidate is in jail accused of killing two rivals.