GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 4 (Reuters) Eleven years after the end of Guatemala's civil war, today's presidential election has split the country between left and right over how to fight a surge in violent crime.
Right-wing retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who vows to cut Guatemala's high murder rate by putting more troops on the streets and using capital punishment, faces left-leaning businessman Alvaro Colom in a tight runoff.
Opinion polls are divided over who will win but several surveys recently gave a small lead to Perez Molina, whose Patriot Party's logo is a clenched fist that symbolises his tough stance on crime.
The army ruled the Central American country for decades until the mid 1980s and committed hundreds of massacres in 36 years of civil war before the government and leftist rebels made peace in 1996.
Since then, Guatemala has been rocked by violent drug traffickers and tattooed street gang members. Almost 6,000 Guatemalans were murdered last year, nearly twice the level at the end of the war and one of the highest murder rates in the world.
''Guatemalans ... don't want an insecure country,'' Perez Molina said. ''If the president doesn't have character and strength we run the risk of becoming a narco state,'' he said.
Home to 13 million people, Guatemala is a major transit point for cocaine shipped to the United States and drug cartels have grown in influence in recent years.
The soft-spoken Colom won the first round of voting in September by 4.7 percentage points but his campaign has flagged since a top advisor quit the race after receiving dozens of anonymous death threats.
The election campaign was itself marred by violence, with over 50 political party activists or candidates for Congress or local elections killed. Colom's party has been hardest hit with almost 20 party members murdered since last year. A party election monitor was killed in a gunfight yesterday.
Colom, a chain smoker and factory owner who has run for president three times, has promised to spend more on health and education.
He argues that Guatemala will only cut crime by attacking poverty and removing corrupt police and judges, and says Perez Molina's army history gives him a dark past.
''My hands are not bloodstained,'' Colom said.
WAR ON CRIME Despite bad memories of army atrocities, many are convinced that Perez Molina's vow to put more troops on the streets to fight crime can restore order.
''We are at war,'' said municipal policeman Jose Ramos in the town of San Juan Sacatepequez. ''Perhaps he will come and put a stop to it.'' Election results are due on Sunday tonight but the count could last for days if the contest is close.
Last week, locals sick of crime burned to death three youths accused of trying to extort a store owner in the town. Vigilante patrols and lynchings are now common in Guatemala, where barely 2 per cent of crimes are resolved.
Guatemala, a coffee exporter, has the highest level of chronic infant malnutrition in the Western Hemisphere and one of the region's lowest tax collection rates.
''We need to talk about jobs and work, not just security,'' said lumber salesman Alfonso Puxtun, 42.
REUTERS SYU BD1110