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Guatemalan voting for president begins slowly

Written by: Staff

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 4 (Reuters) Guatemalans voted in a tight presidential election today that has split the country between left and right over how to fight a big 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 close runoff.

Early voting was slow compared to the first-round election in September, when lawmakers and mayors were also chosen.

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 symbolizes 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 number at the end of the war and one of the highest rates in the world.

''We are going to have to use the army ... to take back control of territories that have been practically lost,'' Perez Molina said about areas of the country overrun by drug barons.

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, whose symbol is a peace dove, won the September round of voting by 4.7 percentage points. He admits organized crime is present in his party and some voters say he is not tough enough to fix the nation's problems.

''Soldiers are disciplined. For all his good intentions, Colom sadly does not have the determination needed,'' said Perez Molina supporter Noemi Samayoa, who lives near the El Gallito area of Guatemala City, where drug-gang shootouts are common.

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-smoking factory owner who has run for president three times, promises to spend on health and schools.

He argues 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 In the village of Santiago Atitlan, on the shores of a lake ringed by volcanoes, villagers recall one of the last army massacres.

''We don't want soldiers. Horrible things happened close to here,'' said teacher Miguel Angel Trianda, 26, who spoke in a Mayan language and voted for Colom.

Election results are due on Sunday night but the count could last for days if the contest is close.

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.'' Last week, locals sick of crime burned to death three youths accused of trying to extort a store owner in San Juan. Vigilante patrols and lynchings are now common in Guatemala, where barely 2 percent 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.

Reuters NY DB2124

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