Friday, September 07, 2007

Violence blights election in Guatemala

The death toll in Guatemala has risen to over 50 due to violence ahead of this weekend’s election. The violence is the worst in the country since the end of the civil war in 1996. Much of the bloodshed has been blamed on drug barons trying to force their candidates into office. Guatemala goes to the polls to elect a new president and Congress on Sunday. Former general Otto Perez Molina hopes to capitalise on the violence with his ‘tough on crime’ campaign.

Perez has risen in the polls as he promises a strong hand to tackle the violence. He has promised to implement the death penalty and expand the military's role in battling organized crime. But his rhetoric has revived fears among those who recall the murderous role of the army in Guatemala’s history. Perez’s biggest rival for the presidency, Alvaro Colom, said the violence has gotten so out of hand that he considers Guatemala a "narco-state" because of the influence drug lords wield with government and law enforcement. Real power is held by the criminal syndicates on the one hand and a small coterie of businessmen on the other.

Nevertheless Guatemalan citizens will cast their votes this Sunday to elect a new president of the Republic, as well as a vice-president, 158 congressmen, and 332 local rulers. Recent polls suggest that the result with be close. The two favourites are General Perez, the right-wing candidate of the Patriot Party, and Alvaro Colom, the left-leaning candidate. The most likely scenario is a run-off between the two on 4 November.

Guatemala, with a population of 13 million, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. 6,000 people were murdered in 2006. Only 3 per cent of these crimes were solved. The country’s low per capita GDP ($1,512 in 2001) is exacerbated by extremely unequal land holding and income distribution. 80 per cent of the population live in poverty with Mayan Indians making up the overwhelming majority of the poor. The situation is exacerbated as most Mayan parents refuse to send their children to public schools or to learn Spanish, because their children become assimilated into Guatemalan culture and leave the community.

The mighty Mayan empire was routed in the 1520s by murderous conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. He established the city of Santiago de Guatemala as the seat of Spanish power in the region for the next three hundred years. The conquered Mayans became slave labourers on the city’s monumental works. Catholic missionaries outlawed the Maya religion and burned all but four of their sacred bark-paper books.

Mayans have remained at the bottom rung of Guatemalan society. The country itself became nominally independent from Spain since 1821. But since then it has been under the considerable shadow of American influence. In 1954, the CIA orchestrated and helped carry out the violent overthrown of Jacobo Arbenz’s democratic Guatemalan government. The all powerful United Fruit Company had opposed Arbenz’s agrarian reform policies and successfully lobbied President Eisenhower to portray Arbenz as a communist threat. Since that time, through to the late 90s, Guatemala was ruled by an oligarchic military regime supported by American training, weapons, and money. A low-level Mayan insurgency has been in place since Arbenz was overthrown.

In the early 1980s the civil war became fiercer and the Guatemalan government launched a brutal war against its own people. Military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, backed by the US Reagan administration, began an all-out military campaign to annihilate the mostly Mayan Indian peasantry. Some of the worst massacres occurred at Rio Negro where the locals were forcibly evacuated to make way for the World Bank funded construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam. Military leaders owned vast tracts of land in the area that the dam would service but the locals were reluctant to leave. In four separate massacres, almost 500 men, women and children were strangled, shot or hacked to death. Filling of the reservoir began after the last of the natives were removed or killed. To date neither the World Bank nor the Guatemalan government acknowledge responsibility for Rio Negro.

Rios Montt continued his scorched earth policy throughout the 1980s. But international opinion was beginning to turn against his government. In 1992, Mayan Rigoberta Menchú (who is an outsider for the upcoming election) won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring international attention to the government-sponsored genocide against the indigenous population.

In 1996 the UN brokered a peace accord between the government and the rebels. The accord ended the longest and bloodiest of Latin America's Cold War civil wars, leaving between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians dead, mostly Mayans. A UN-sponsored truth commission said that government forces and state-sponsored paramilitaries were responsible for over 93 percent of the human rights violations during the war.

But the dividend of peace remains elusive for most Guatemalans. Organised crime and drug trafficking are thriving in a country where the police, courts and jails are barely functioning. The justice system is so ineffective that the US and other Western nations successfully pushed for a UN commission last month that would tackle criminal cases that authorities are unable to pursue. "If they catch you, you must be an idiot. Because it's almost impossible that they catch you," said Ana Maria Mendez, director of the UN's justice, security and conflict program in Guatemala. "In some of those places, justice is in the hands of God."

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