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Oscar Berger, representing the Great National Alliance (GANA), defeated Alvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) in the December 2003 presidential runoff election. Guatemala's governance problems are on the rise as corruption and lawlessness increase with impunity.
The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, coups, and guerrilla insurgency. Civilian rule followed the 1985 elections, and a 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1996. The peace accords led to the successful demobilization of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas and their political legalization, the retirement of more than 40 senior military officers on corruption and narcotics charges, and the reduction of the army's strength by one-third. A truth commission mandated by the peace accords began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. However, in a May 1999 referendum, voters rejected a package of amendments to the constitution, approved by congress a year earlier that had been prepared in accordance with the peace plan.
The former guerrillas of the URNG, seriously divided and unable to make electoral gains, offered a blunt assessment of the peace accords in early 2002: "Genocide is no longer state policy." There was general consensus that with the failure to implement substantive reforms redressing social and economic inequalities, the peace process was dead. This failure included the government's inability to end the military's political tutelage and impunity, to fully recognize the rights of the Maya Indians, and to reform taxation to pay for health, education, and housing programs for the poor. Late in the year, the government of President Alfonso Portillo signed an agreement to provide victims of the civil war with $400 million in compensation under a National Compensation Program.
In July 2003, the constitutional court ruled that retired General Efrain Rios Montt could stand for the presidency. He was later chosen as the candidate for the National Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). The court's decision was condemned at home and abroad. On July 24 and 25, violent demonstrations were staged in Guatemala City as the FRG brought armed supporters to intimidate the court's justices and critics.
In November 9, 2003 parliamentary elections, the FRG lost its congressional majority, but it still captured 44 seats, with GANA holding 49 and UNE 34. At the local level, the FRG was the most successful party, having won over 100 municipalities; GANA won 69; and UNE, 33. This outcome made governability a serious concern, as the FRG still enjoyed significant support at the grassroots level. The FRG's appeal was based partly on a message of law and order appealing to segments of the population exposed to high levels of lawlessness and violence. While UNE is identified as left of center, as a whole the left did not fare well, with the URNG capturing 2 seats in congress.
Presidential elections held concurrently with the legislative polls were marked with less than the expected violence, although voting was suspended in seven municipalities because of violence. Oscar Berger, a former mayor of Guatemala City, of GANA received 34 percent of the vote. The UNE's Alvaro Colom obtained 26 percent of the ballot, and Montt came in a distant third with 19 percent. Since no candidate polled more than 50 percent, a runoff election was held on December 28 between Berger, who won with 54 percent of the vote, and Colom.
Berger was sworn into office on January 14, 2004, and will have to govern with a seriously divided congress, and in a country where the FRG won a majority of the mayoral races. Former president Alvaro Arzu, of the National Advancement Party (PAN), who had negotiated the peace agreement with the guerrillas, was elected mayor of Guatemala City. After a first electoral round characterized by intimidation and uncertainty, especially around the role of Montt and his supporters in the FRG, the outcome of the second round reassured Guatemalan and international observers about the integrity of the electoral system. Later in 2004, Montt was placed under house arrest for inciting peasant militia units (PACs) to riot.
Nevertheless, the challenges faced by the new president have only increased since the controversial presidency of his predecessor, Portillo. Of special concern has been the role of the PACs, which had supported Montt's failed candidacy and were most active in the 36-year-long civil war during the period from 1990 to 1996. In an effort to preclude outbursts of violence, Berger met with Maya representatives during the year and promised to enforce anti-racism laws. He also assured representatives of the PACs that he would continue with the compensation process initiated by Portillo.
While the civil war is over, assassinations, kidnappings, beatings, break-ins, and death threats are still common. Death squads have reappeared, and hundreds of street children continue to be murdered and mutilated. In response to a dramatic increase in gang-related violence, the government has implemented a controversial jail-based program targeting gangs (maras) called "The Sweep-up Plan" and modeled after Honduras's draconian anti-gang efforts. Portillo had admitted that clandestine groups with military ties exist, but claimed to be powerless to combat them. Berger faces an uphill battle in trying to reduce rampant violence, while also reigning in what Guatemalans call "parallel powers," which include gangs, drug traffickers, rogue retired and active-duty police and armed forces, and sundry government officials. Portillo, wanted on charges of money laundering and embezzlement in both Guatemala and the United States, disappeared upon leaving office.
A final complication has been the failure to move toward a final resolution of the border dispute with Belize, an early hope during the Portillo administration that was dashed in 2004 without much explanation.
Citizens of Guatemala can change their government through democratic means. The 1985 constitution, amended in 1994, provides for a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. A unicameral congress consisting of 113 members is elected for four years. The 2003 presidential and legislative elections were regarded by international observers as generally free and fair.
Corruption is widespread, and efforts to promote transparency have made little progress. Guatemala was ranked 122 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
While freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, those who loudly condemn injustice or past human rights abuses can become targets for persecution. The press and most broadcast media outlets are privately owned. Seven dailies are published in the capital, and six are local. There are several radio stations, most of them commercial. Four of the six television stations are commercially operated and are owned by the same financial interest. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), a Paris-based organization, has repeatedly noted that journalists and human rights activist were targets of intimidation, including death threats. Several journalists lost their lives during the 2004 presidential campaign. Access to the Internet is not limited.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom. The government does not interfere with academic freedom. However, academics have been targets of death threats for raising questions about past human rights abuses or continuing injustice.
The constitution guarantees the right to organize civic organizations and political parties. Nevertheless, human rights groups are the targets of frequent death threats and the victims of acts of violence. In January 2003, the Guatemalan human rights prosecutor's office (PDH) pushed for an UN-appointed commission to curb threats and attacks against human rights activists. The resulting entity, the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus (CICIACS), was created on January 7, 2004, and received a pledge of support from President Oscar Berger.
Trade unions are targets of intimidation, physical attacks, and assassination, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and are subjected to mass firings and blacklisting, particularly in export-processing zones, where the majority of workers are women.
The judicial system remains ineffectual for most legal and human rights complaints. In general, it suffers from corruption, intimidation, insufficient personnel, lack of training opportunities, and lack of transparency and accountability. The indigenous population continues to be shut out from the national justice system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms around the country, Guatemalan authorities mostly dismiss traditional justice systems. Cursory recruitment efforts have resulted in only a handful of indigenous recruits for the National Civilian Police (PNC).
Despite increasing freedom, Guatemala has yet to end a tradition of military dominance. The demobilization of the presidential bodyguard and military intelligence, the two units held most accountable for human rights abuses, mandated by the peace accords has finally taken place. Berger reduced the armed forces from 27,000 to 15,500 troops. Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America. During the first seven months of 2004, more than 2,000 murders took place. The closing of military barracks throughout the country - the armed forces were the one Guatemalan institution that had a truly national presence - while the PNC was being created and deployed created a vacuum in which criminal activity escalated. One result was an upsurge of vigilantism and lynchings. Neighborhood patrols - some armed with automatic weapons - have sprung up in an attempt to arrest the spiraling crime wave. More than 60,000 private security guards far outnumber the PNC. Former president Alfonso Portillo had called out army troops to assist the PNC, whose 22,000 members are overtasked, undertrained, and frequently corrupt, in patrolling urban areas. Drug trafficking is a serious problem, and Guatemala remains a transit point for drugs going to the United States.
Eighty percent of the population lives below poverty levels, and infant mortality rates among the Maya are among the highest on the continent.
Violence against women and children is widespread and common. Street children and women, especially those believed to be engaged in prostitution, are the most common victims of murder. Women and children are drawn into prostitution both locally and in neighboring countries. Guatemala has a murder rate of 101 per 100,000, which is almost twice the Central American rate and three times that of Latin America. Guatemala has the highest rate of child labor in the Americas, with one-third of school-aged children forced to work on farms or in factories. There is extensive human trafficking, especially of illegal aliens from Asia en route to the United States.