Center-leftist leads Guatemala vote over general

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GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 5 (Reuters) Center-leftist Alvaro Colom narrowly led Guatemala's presidential election against a retired general who wants to use the army and emergency laws to fight a brutal crime wave.

Colom, a soft-spoken textile businessman, had a lead of 3 percentage points over Gen Otto Perez Molina with 70 per cent of polling stations counted. Colom had earlier enjoyed a margin of almost 19 points in initial results.

The Central American country, a US free trade partner, has been plagued by violent drug cartels and youth street gangs since the end of its civil war in 1996 and now has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Colom, 56, on his third bid to win the presidency, has accused Perez Molina seeking to take Guatemala back to the dark days of the Cold War when the powerful military systematically abused human rights.

''We have had a strong hand for 50 years and it caused more than 250,000 victims in a dirty war,'' Colom said.

The army ruled Guatemala for decades until the mid-1980s and committed hundreds of massacres in 36 years of civil war with leftist rebels. More than 200,000 people died.

Perez Molina, the former head of army intelligence, wants to put more troops on the streets and use capital punishment to fight crime.

Chain-smoker Colom, whose party symbol is a peace dove, was on almost 52 percent from yesterday's vote, compared to over 48 per cent for Perez Molina.

Colom says Guatemala will only cut crime by attacking poverty and removing corrupt police and judges, but admits that drug gangsters have found their way into his National Unity for Hope party.

The election campaign was marred by violence, with more than 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.

BOOKISH MODERATE Some voters say Colom, a bookish former deputy economy minister, is not tough enough to fight cocaine cartels, corruption and infamous ''mara'' street gangs which extort businesses and behead rivals.

''Soldiers are disciplined. For all his good intentions, Colom sadly does not have the determination needed,'' said Perez Molina supporter Noemi Samoyoa, a resident of the capital's El Gallito area where drug-gang shootouts are common.

Colom defines himself as a moderate social democrat and says he is inspired by leftist presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

He also backs the policies of more radical leaders in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia but said his government would not clash with coffee-producer Guatemala's landowning and business elites.

Several of Colom's relatives were killed during the civil war, including his uncle Manuel Colom Argueta, a presidential candidate and prominent leftist who was murdered by the military in 1979.

REUTERS SZ KN0859

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