Guatemalans to pick the lesser of two evils in November election

BY JUANITA DARLING, Assistant professor of International Relations, special to Xpress

Guatemala’s law-and-order presidential candidate won the top slot Sunday, Sept. 11 for the November run-off election. Otto Perez Molina promises to fight the country’s drug traffickers using the tactics he learned against leftist guerrillas as a high-ranking military officer during the final years of his country’s three-decade civil war.

That begs two questions of Perez Molina, who racked up 37 percent of the vote in a field of 10 contenders: What were those tactics, and are they likely to end the narcotics-fueled violence that has driven Guatemala’s homicide rate eight times higher than the U.S. murder rate?

Neither answer bodes well for a Guatemala that Perez Molina will govern.

The tactics the army used in the three-decade civil war inspired the founding of the Oakland-based Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala. It started 30 years ago in an effort to pressure the U.S. government to stop supporting a military regime the organization termed “brutal.” NISGUA objected to anti-guerrilla tactics that included the killing or forced disappearances of as many as 19,000 civilians a year and led to the exile of thousands more. Currently, more than 1 million Guatemalans live in the United States, 41,000 of them in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The justification for the scorched earth policy against civilians was that guerrillas hid among the population, and the only way to defeat the guerrillas was to drive out the civilian population. The morality of those tactics is still being determined in Guatemalan and international courts, including at least one case that specifically names Perez Molina.

Their effectiveness in the current situation is another question.