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Guatemala Votes for New President

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The issues have a familiar ring: crime in the streets, unemployment, poverty. And they may decide the winners of today's elections in Guatemala. The race for the presidency is attracting the most interest. There are two frontrunners. One used to head Guatemala's military intelligence. He's promising to use a strong fist against criminals. His main rival is a former businessman. He's vowing to create jobs and social programs.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in the Guatemalan City of Antigua.

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First, Lourdes, what's the atmosphere been like in Guatemala in the run up to the voting.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think the electorate here is pretty apathetic, actually. The problems facing this country, as you just detailed, are enormous. There's a poverty rate of about 60 percent, weak institutions that analysts say make Guatemala almost a failed state, drug trafficking and, of course, a totally corrupt political class that many here say has never done anything for them.

But of course, the big issue in this election is violence. Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world. There were 6,000 murders here last year, 98 percent of which went unsolved. That's an incredible number. And there's total impunity for crime. Crimes are committed by any number of groups: tattooed gang members, narcos, criminal organizations. The list goes on.

HANSEN: I understand almost 50 people linked to candidates or politics are actually killed during the campaign. Well, what's behind that level of violence?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, Guatemala went through a 36-year-long civil war that left 200,000 people dead. So there is a painful legacy here. I've spoken to a few people about the political violence and while, yes, some among those murdered seem to have been killed with political motivations in mind, others do seem to have had other root causes. Still, it's really created a climate of fear.

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HANSEN: Now, who are the leading contenders for president?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, no one is going to get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff in November. But there are two men who will certainly go to the second round. One is Otto Perez Molina on the right. He's a former army intelligence chief who fought in the country's civil war, but then became part of the peace process. He's promising to use (unintelligible) as you mentioned, which means being really tough on crime. He's projecting this strong man image. And he says he'll use the military to crack down on lawlessness. He has shot up in the polls and he's running neck-in-neck with his main rival.

That rival is called Alvaro Colom. He is from the center left, a former businessman who also headed an agency that distributed funds to help rebuild Guatemala after the war. He initially seem like a shoo-in but he's been losing ground steadily to Perez Molina, mostly because of the get-tough-on-crime message seems to be really resonating with people here.

HANSEN: So what, regardless of the outcome, what would the next president of Guatemala have to do to actually really change the country?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, the problem seem almost insurmountable. But I think what the electorate is really clamoring for is security, more than anything. I've spoken to people on the street here and they tell me that they're afraid to go out of their houses in certain neighborhoods. And so it's a real fear for many people here. And they really want someone to crack down on organized crime, on narco-trafficking groups, on the gang members, on the - just criminality that seems to pervade the streets here.

HANSEN: What would be America's interest in the outcome of the elections today?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I think - who wants to have a failed state in the hands of organized crime and drug traffickers close to the border? I think that's the main issue. This is a region, also, which - in which the U.S. is heavily involved during the 1980s. And that intervention contributed, as you know, to a lot of the instability and deaths that were the result. The United States is part of Guatemala's history. And I think, when I've spoken to people here, they say it's part of its present for better or for worse.

HANSEN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Guatemala. Lourdes, thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.