Crime the issue in Guatemala

Al Jazeera’s Mariana Sanchez on a country split on how to tackle rising violence.

Retired general Otto Perez Molina is ahead in the polls [AFP]

Guatemalans say they are fed up with violence.

Six thousand people are murdered every year in a country of 13 million people – one of the highest rates in the world and almost double the level of 1996, when peace agreements ended the war between the government and rebel fighters.

Guatemala is a major trafficking route for cocaine being moved from Colombia through Mexico to the US and many areas are control by violent gangs.

A corrupt and inept justice system leaves 98 per cent of murders unsolved.

Last Thursday, in the town of San Juan Zacatepeques, north of Guatemala City, a group of villagers captured four young alleged gang members, and burnt them alive.

‘Painful years’

In Comalapa local people say they are afraid of crime.

“Violence is worse than poverty, when you go to the capital no one is safe.” says Maria Adela Roquel.

Maria Adela is one of millions of indigenous people in the Central American country who says they have been marginalised by the country’s politicians.

Guatemalans are preparing to go to the polls to elect a new president after one of the bloodiest election campaigns in the country’s history in which more than 50 candidates and party activists have been shot dead.

Sunday’s run-off election, in which six million people are eligible to vote, is a close race between Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing retired general and Alvaro Colom, a social democrat, with final polls giving Molina a slight lead.
Maria Adela wants the new president to bring peace to Guatemala.

But this Sunday she is not sure whether or not to vote for Molina, who once led troops in some areas where thousands of indigenous Guatemalans were killed during the 36 year civil war in which her own brother disappeared.

Maria Adela Roquel is praying for a
better future

“We don’t want those painful years to come back because we lived such terrible times that we were left traumatised,” she says.

“The reason to go to the polls is to elect a president that will try to help us move forward, because all the previous presidents have marginalised us, the indigenous people.

“They make a lot of promises but nothing comes through and when they get to power they act as if they don’t know us.”

‘Strong fist’

Perez Molina promises he will use the army to regain control of the streets and bring back the death penalty.

“We want Guatemala to be safe and when we go to vote our hand won’t tremble because we will vote with a strong fist,” he says.

Alvaro Colom, who won the first round but is now behind in the polls, does not believe fighting violence with “a strong fist” will work.

The left-wing politician, who is running for the third time, says crime will only be resolved if poverty is tackled first.

“The fist is only good to pound. The strong fist has not given any results in any country where it has been applied and in Guatemala we’ve had 50 years of poverty, of abandonment of the health care system, of children living in the streets.”

While Perez says Colom has received money from drug gangs, Colom has highlighted Perez Molina’s past as was an army officer during the 1960-1996 civil war that left more than 200,000 Guatemalans dead.

People are in Comalapa have very little to sell in the markets and they say elections don’t really make a change in their lives.

Indigenous Guatemalans like Maria Adela are among the poorest in the country with many living on less than two dollars a day.

But, like thousands of Guatemalans, Maria Adela will cast her vote on Sunday hoping that the new president will deliver on his promises.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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