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In Guatemala, troubles ahead and troubles behind

By Heather Berkman

Guatemala's presidential campaign has been full of twists and turns, with the most recent bump coming on Wednesday, when the indigenous organization Waqib Kej presented a letter to the United Nations denouncing former Army General Otto Perez Molina for his alleged involvement in acts of genocide and torture during the country's long civil war. Perez Molina also happens to be the right-of-center Patriot Party presidential candidate and favorite to win Guatemala's September 11 election. His competitor is former first lady Sandra Torres, who last March divorced her husband, current President Alvaro Colom, in order to "marry the people of Guatemala" -- or, in other words, to claim eligibility for her own presidential bid. The turbulent campaign only mirrors Guatemala's larger woes. And no matter who secures the presidency, the country seems unlikely to get it together anytime soon.

Guatemalan politics over the past few years have been reminiscent of a dark and twisted telenovela. This is the country where a lawyer planned his own death and posthumously released a video blaming the government for it, and where just last week famed Argentine singer Facundo Cabral was gunned down in his car. Since the May 2011 start of the election period, more than 30 candidates for office -- ranging from local councils to mayorships -- have been murdered, and members of the supreme election tribunal have received death threats. The alarming events led Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, to express concern about rising tensions leading up to the national elections.

The country's troubles are also what have enabled Perez Molina to soar to the top of public opinion polls. While the allegations of human rights abuses are nothing new, little concrete evidence has been presented to date, and Perez Molina has capitalized on his anti-crime stance to curry favor with voters. Torres, meanwhile, is waging an uphill battle to reverse the election tribunal's decision that her former marriage makes her ineligible to run for president.

But whatever happens on election day, the new administration will have a tough time lifting Guatemala out of the morass it finds itself in. Since he entered office in January 2008, President Colom has seemingly lurched from one disaster to the next and has failed to build enough support in Guatemala's unruly and fragmented legislature to pass much-needed tax reforms. Meanwhile, drug traffickers from Mexico have extended their networks through the country, crime and violence have sapped government resources and stymied investment, and the government repetitively has had to turn to multilateral financial institutions and foreign governments for support. Perez Molina may promise to usher in change and a heavy hand on security, but following through on his agenda and bringing Guatemala back on track may be more than what this former military man has bargained for.

Heather Berkman is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.

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