Ex-dictator runs for office in Guatemala


COMALAPA, Guatemala - From behind bolted doors after dark, Vidalia Chali places blame for Guatemala's crippling climate of violence in an unusual place: the 1996 peace accords that ended the nation's civil war.

"The criminals are taking advantage of the peace," said the peasant woman, 33, holding her 3-year-old daughter. "People say that since there is peace, the police can't do anything to them."

That belief explains why Chali and others may be tempted to vote in today's presidential election for the firm hand of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, even in this valley where 108 massacre victims were exhumed this year from mass graves, many of them dating to Rios Montt's rule in the early 1980s.

The many contradictions of Central America's most populated and strife-torn nation are on full display in today's election - violence blamed on peace, support for a strongman in a place where he is accused of atrocities, massacres haunting the most beautiful of green valleys.

In the country's second vote since the peace accords, polls show Rios Montt running well behind Oscar Berger, a pro-business former mayor of Guatemala City, and Alvaro Colom, a former peace fund administrator and son of another former mayor of the capital.

Although the polls may not reflect the strength of the rural vote, they suggest that no one is likely to get the necessary majority to win in today's first round, and that Berger and Colom will be headed for a runoff Dec. 28.

But few have dared to rule out Rios Montt, whose support is strongest outside the capital and whose Guatemalan Republican Front, known by its Spanish initials FRG, controls the government. While the United Nations and other international observers predict a relatively problem-free election, human-rights activists and other Rios Montt opponents worry that a climate of fear and intimidation could help propel the former dictator into the runoff.

Rios Montt's foes accuse him of employing threats by soldiers and ex-paramilitary members in rural areas. Election observers say his ruling party has tried to win votes through promises of payments to the notorious ex-paramilitaries, giveaways of government fertilizer and control over television programming.

"I don't think the FRG is going to give up so easily," said Eduardo Stein, a former foreign minister who helped design the peace accords and is the vice presidential candidate on Berger's ticket. "They're going to fight it out with everything they've got, so there is a potential for problems."

The former paramilitaries have already caused disturbances. On Thursday, police used tear gas to disperse 1,000 of them protesting the government's failure to deliver some payments. Another group took four journalists hostage last month.

Others fear outright meddling: Ruling party officials organized street riots in July to protest a legal challenge to Rios Montt's candidacy. The former dictator, who is president of Congress, was also accused of stacking the Constitutional Court to get his candidacy approved this year.

"The polls don't worry us!" shouted Zury Rios Sosa, Rios Montt's daughter and an FRG congresswoman, at a campaign rally Wednesday in one of the capital's poorest neighborhoods. "Guatemala knows that he is the hard hand against narco-traffickers, organized crime and criminals."

The election comes at a time of deep disillusionment with democracy in Guatemala. Here, the longest of the region's Cold War conflicts has given way to a period of crime, corruption and impunity that widens a historical rift between the wealthy Ladino elite and the impoverished indigenous majority.

A regional poll published this month by Chile's Latinobarometro firm found that only one-third of Guatemalans think democracy is preferable to another form of government. Only 21 percent said they are satisfied with the way democracy functioned in their country.

Part of the problem is the government's failure to carry out the peace accords.

With the elite resisting taxes, a new national police force has been deprived of resources, opening the door to more corruption and the growing influence of organized crime.

Only in the past few months has departing President Alfonso Portillo disbanded a notorious presidential security force and inaugurated a reparations commission to compensate war victims.

Rios Montt, 77, known as "The General," ruled the country at the height of the 36-year civil war after taking power in a 1982 military coup.

The United Nations says half of the war's more than 200,000 victims were killed during an army "scorched earth" campaign during his 18 months in office.

Rios Montt was overthrown in another army coup.

But since then, he has rebuilt his standing through populist, anti-oligarchy rhetoric and a grandfatherly, moralist preaching style that appeals to fellow evangelical Christians and the nation's poorest and most vulnerable.

On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the Bush administration position that it would be "difficult" for the United States to work with Rios Montt because of his history. But some Guatemalans remember him for instilling order during the chaotic war.

"In the time that he ruled, things were tranquil," said Maria Teresa Carrera, 55, a clothes presser who attended his rally last week. "The accusations against him are false. He has helped the poor people."

But critics allege that Rios Montt's party also has won votes through manipulation, threats and fraud.

In July, in the central town of Rabinal, where some of the war's worst massacres took place, the Tribune witnessed local farmers coming to the store of the local FRG mayoral candidate to collect half-price fertilizer that was supposed to be part of a Japan-sponsored government aid program.

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