Back to the Future in the Guatemalan Elections

Colom and Molina

The September 9 election to replace Guatemalan President Oscar Berger featured more body bags than tangible ideas to improve the country. Now facing a runoff election, voters are left with the tired choice between a military strongman and an oligarch.

The last time Guatemala was a functioning democracy was during Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán’s administration, which ended prematurely as a result of a CIA orchestrated coup in June of 1954. In the decades that followed the country suffered under military dictatorships, death squads, genocide and a 36-year civil war that left hundreds of thousands murdered, tortured and disappeared.

On Dec. 29, 1996, peace accords were signed which ended the fighting formally. But since then not much has changed as institutional racism, military and police abuses, criminal violence, poverty and impunity continue to plague the suffering Central American nation.

Last May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called out the Guatemalan government for ongoing threats and violence directed at human rights workers, the government’s meager investment in social services (the lowest in the region), the continued discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples, and the continued rise of homicides. Guatemala has the highest murder rate in all of Latin America

Amnesty International reports that "clandestine groups" comprised of members of "the business sector, private security companies, common criminals, gang members and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces," are responsible for the violence and threats targeted at human rights activists.

Outgoing President Oscar Berger, a former businessman and wealthy landowner, has violently displaced indigenous farmers through evictions marked by house burnings and demolitions. He even unleashed the military on indigenous protestors who opposed a controversial World Bank mining project run by Canada’s Goldcorp Inc. (formerly Glamis Gold). Both actions are interpreted as violations of the 1996 Peace Accords.

The September 9, 2007 presidential election to replace Berger sadly featured more body bags than tangible ideas to improve the country.  The pre-election violence left over 50 candidates (or their family members) and political activists murdered.

"There are ambushes with automatic weapons, explosives, killing of entire groups at once," Francisco Garcia, and election monitor, told Reuters in July. "It shows there are mafia groups interested in gaining state power."

It is widely believed drug traffickers are responsible for the violence and that they bankrolled candidates from the local to national level.

What voters are left with for the Nov. 4 runoff is the tired choice between a military strongman and an oligarch, representing two segments of the population largely responsible for the continued destruction of the country.

Former businessman Alvaro Colom and ex-general Otto Pérez Molina came out on top with 28 percent and 24 percent of the vote respectively. Former Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, sixth place with just 3 percent of the vote. Her candidacy was doomed from the beginning because unlike in Bolivia, there are very little social movements in Guatemala.

Pérez Molina has quite a resume. The ex-general is a School of the Americas graduate and was the former Chief of G-2, Guatemala’s feared military intelligence unit. The self-proclaimed "general of peace" (he was involved in the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords) was also formerly on the CIA payroll

Molina’s campaign symbol is a fist, or "strong hand." He wants to get tough with the "thugs" and drug gangs largely blamed for Guatemala’s increased violence and crime rates. Remarkably, he even told Reuters that he wanted to use the military to police the streets.

"Until we can get out of this security crisis and strengthen the police, we have to use the army," said Pérez Molina.

According to Reuters, a UN report revealed that soldiers under Pérez Molina’s command in the 1980’s were responsible for massacres in the Western Province of El Quiche. It has also been alleged that he was involved in the assassination of a judge in 1994.

The other choice for Guatemalans is two-time presidential candidate Alvaro Colom, who in the past has referred to himself as "the godfather of the factories." Colom has adopted softer rhetoric than his counterpart, instead promising to attack crime and violence through education, healthcare and social spending. Between the two, he may seem the more attractive. But, he most likely will represent the "self-interested dominant sectors in Guatemalan politics" and "the old oligarchic business elites backed by international capital," much like Berger. According to The Carter Center, Colom received illegal campaign contributions in the 2003 election, while he also refused, not surprisingly, to be financially transparent within his campaign.

In the end, Guatemalans will have to battle against the "invisible foot" of the market crushing down on them or the "iron fist" of the military—or maybe both. Meanwhile, what we can hope for is local level organizing to continue and eventually blossom into large scale social movements. It may be Guatemala’s only hope to break out of the cycle of racism, violence and impunity perpetuated by the state and the international business community.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at