Pubdate: Sat, 04 Aug 2007
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Author: Marc Lacey


GUATEMALA CITY -- It is election time in Guatemala and that means
rallies and banners -- and body bags.

In the campaigning leading up to elections on Sept. 9, the authorities
have reported 61 violent attacks on candidates and political
activists. The death toll is 26, including seven national congressmen
and numerous other office seekers.

The flurry of bullets, and the occasional machete attack, make this
the bloodiest campaign season in the history of a country with a long
tradition of political violence, including 36 years of civil war that
ended in 1996. But what makes the bloodletting different this time is
that it has been attributed to narcotics traffickers and their allies
intent on infiltrating Guatemala's political system.

So dangerous is campaigning that Alvaro Colom, the leading
presidential candidate, flies in a helicopter to avoid being ambushed
and travels with a physician with extensive experience in bullet
wounds. He is careful what he eats, lest someone poison it. "I hate to
say this, but it's more violent now than during the war," he said.

It is not only South America's drug-producing countries that are at
risk these days from the impact of the drug trade, or even of becoming
narcostates. More and more, corrosive effects are being felt in the
countries where the drugs transit, like Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti,
as competition grows, in effect, to set up toll roads on the drug
routes to the United States.

Somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the South American cocaine that
enters the United States now comes through Central America, American
officials say, pulling rising levels of political instability,
violence and corruption in its wake.

The most popular trafficking routes shift constantly to stay one step
ahead of law enforcement efforts, the officials say. "If you attack
the cockroach in one corner, the son of a gun shows up in another,"
said a senior American counternarcotics official in the region, who
spoke on background to avoid compromising future investigations.

Cartels active in Colombia, where much of the region's cocaine is
produced, have connections with politicians, military officers and
others throughout the area to assist them in getting drugs and drug
profits out, whether on small planes or boats.

Guatemala provides an increasingly important transit point, American
officials say, as traffickers take advantage of the country's dire
poverty and lawlessness. They have already made considerable progress
over the years, political analysts and law enforcement officials say,
by installing sympathetic politicians in Congress and in local city

"Controlling the political system is their goal," said Iduvina
Hernandez, an analyst at a Guatemalan research group called Security
in Democracy. "If they can control a small town, they can build a
landing strip there and use it as a base. If they have someone in
Congress, all the better."

With plenty of money to spend, drug dealers finance as many campaigns
as they can and put forward candidates who are on the take. Resistance
is met with gunfire.

Jose Carlos Marroquin, Mr. Colom's chief strategist, might have joined
the list of victims as well. Last year, as campaigning got under way,
assailants lobbed three grenades at his motorcade and opened fire on
the vehicles with automatic weapons. He survived but the threats
against him and his family have not let up.

"Politics is dangerous here," said Mr. Marroquin, a former newspaper
editor. "Along with the regular campaigns, there is a campaign of fear."

In addition to the traffickers, an array of other heavily armed
groups, including rogue soldiers, paramilitary groups, street gangs
and smugglers, are fueling the violence. None of them are trigger shy.

Street violence is part of life in Guatemala even when an election is
not around the corner. People are shot by muggers, caught in the cross
fire of rival gangs and taken out by hit men as a matter of course.

Campaign season brings a spike in the killing, although homicides are
only rarely solved here and political crime is no exception.
[Guatemala's Congress voted Aug. 1 to approve an initiative backed by
President Oscar Berger's administration that would allow United
Nations investigators to aid in the prosecution of armed groups. It is
being called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.]

In one example of how hard it is to crack a case here, three
Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament and their driver
were murdered in Guatemala in February. The suspected killers, four
police officers, were themselves later murdered in prison. A police
officer and five men with links to a drug cartel have been arrested,
although the motive for the attacks and counterattacks remains
unknown. Mr. Berger's security minister resigned in the wake of the

The effect of all the violence on the candidates is profound. They
move around with their own private armies, usually in bullet-proof
vehicles loaded with small arsenals.

One of those who feel most vulnerable is Mr. Colom, a businessman who
is leading the pack in the presidential race. People affiliated with
his party have suffered more attacks, 16 of the 61, than any other.

Besides the recent attacks on members of his party, he is haunted by
the past. His uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, was a leading presidential
candidate in 1979, when he was gunned down.

One candidate forced out of Mr. Colom's National Unity for Hope party
in 2005 was Manuel de Jesus Castillo, a congressman who has been
accused but never convicted of links to drug interests.

He is running for mayor of the provincial town of Jutiapa as an
independent. It is a campaign he is expected to win, largely because
of his precampaign giveaways of everything from farming tools to
livestock. The raffles he sponsors even offer free plots of land to
lucky residents -- but only if he wins.

"I'm clean, and it's a lie what they say about me," Mr. Castillo, who
has formed his own civic organization called El Castillo, or the
Castle, has told reporters. He travels his rural district in a yellow
Hummer and has burly men nearby to protect him.

With the murder rate at roughly 6,000 deaths a year, it is not hard to
understand why security has emerged as the chief issue of the campaign.

"There are presidential candidates who are trying to scare the
people," Mr. Colom said the other day, an indirect attack at Otto
Perez Molina, a tough-talking former general who is considered to be
No. 2 in the polls. "We have a plan to bring security but also health
and education and jobs."

Mr. Perez Molina's campaign symbol is a fist. He is all about "mano
dura," or "strong hand," his shorthand for a no-holds-barred crackdown
on delinquency. The tough message has appeal among crime-weary
Guatemalans, who were shown in a recent survey to back extreme
methods, even vigilantism, to cut the country's murder rate.

The population applauded Alejandro Giammattei, a former director of
prisons and the candidate of the ruling party, when he ordered a raid
on a notorious prison last year that had become a center for organized
crime. Subsequently, gunmen tried to end his life, Mr. Giammattei said.

After that, Guatemala's top human rights official said there was
evidence that the police had shot and killed seven prisoners after
they had been detained in the raid. Mr. Giammattei denied that
account, although public sympathy for the prisoners who were killed
has been minimal.

Even the candidacy of Efrain Rios Montt, a former dictator who is
running for a congressional seat, has not prompted much of an uproar
here. Mr. Rios Montt is expected to win a seat, which will make it
harder to prosecute him on charges of violating human rights during
the country's long civil war.

In April, 31 members of the United States Congress sent a letter to
Guatemala's attorney general calling for the immediate arrest of Mr.
Rios Montt, who ruled the country from 1982 to 1983, which was
considered the bloodiest period of the civil war.

Warrants for Mr. Rios Montt's arrest, issued by a Spanish judge, stem
from complaints filed by another presidential candidate, Rigoberta
Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of
Guatemala's marginalized indigenous communities, which bore the brunt
of the violence during the war.

With little in the way of resources, her campaign is struggling,
despite its message of breaking with the country's violent past. A
Quiche Indian, she would be the first woman and the first indigenous
person to serve as president.

As a symbol of the peace he wants, Mr. Colom, who is in his third bid
for the presidency, threw a dove in the air at a recent campaign
rally. It went up for a moment, its wings flapping furiously, then
quickly plummeted to the ground. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake