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Ex dictator from 36 year civil war in elections { November 10 2003 }

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Ex-Dictator Trails Rivals in Guatemalan Election

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 10, 2003; Page A16

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov. 10 -- Retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a former military dictator who presided over the bloodiest days of Guatemala's long civil war, appeared to have failed in his bid to regain the presidency, according to preliminary results of balloting in national elections Sunday.

Rios Montt, 77, who took power in a coup in 1982 and lost it 16 months later in another coup, seemed headed for a third place finish behind the former mayor of Guatemala City, Oscar Berger, and Alvaro Colom, an engineer. If the preliminary results hold up, Berger will finish a strong first and will face Colom in a Dec. 28 runoff.

The preliminary results, provided by people familiar with the vote count, were unofficial. Final results were expected early Monday, largely because extremely heavy turnout among the country's 5 million registered voters forced election officials to extend voting hours well into Sunday night.

Many voters waited in line for four hours or longer, partly because of incomplete or inaccurate voter lists. In one town, Cuyotenango, voters burned ballots in protest.

If the preliminary results prove correct, the election Sunday would probably mark the end of the political career of one of Latin America's most controversial and reviled leaders. In addition, a defeat for Rios Montt, who is also president of Congress, would mean that he would lose immunity from prosecution when his congressional term ends in January. He may then have to face a genocide case filed against him in a Guatemalan court.

"Rios Montt's persona is a symbol of a very dark chapter in Guatemala's history," said a newspaper columnist, Carolina Escobar Sarti, as Berger's supporters set off fireworks over the capital. "Now we are back on the route to democracy. We are recovering our hope."

At stake was control of the most populous nation in Central America, a largely impoverished and volatile region struggling to establish peaceful, democratic governments after decades of civil wars. An estimated 200,000 people died in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended with U.N.-brokered peace accords in 1996.

Seven years later, Guatemala is still riddled with government corruption, soaring rates of violent crime and poverty among more than 80 percent of its 11 million people. Wealth and political power are still largely controlled by an elite of rich families and their supporters in the military, while many in the largely Mayan Indian population in the countryside suffer chronic malnutrition.

Outgoing President Alfonso Portillo, a protege of Rios Montt, has presided over a government so corrupt and inefficient that U.S. officials temporarily decertified Guatemala this year as a good-faith partner in the fight against drug traffickers.

"Guatemala is a country that is not evolving well. . . . They still have a very weak state, the weakest in all the hemisphere," said Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, which sent more than 150 election observers here to guard against fraud.

More than 1,000 observers were watching polling stations Sunday, along with 3,000 government prosecutors stationed at polling places to handle complaints of fraud, intimidation or other irregularities. Thousands of police and soldiers were deployed throughout the country to guard against potential violence.

Concern about violence increased Saturday night when unknown gunmen shot and wounded Rolando Morales, a congressional candidate and top aide to Colom. Morales was a guerrilla during the civil war.

Analysts here said the greatest potential for fraud and violence comes from supporters of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front, or FRG, the party of Portillo and Rios Montt. Fears persisted Sunday that the FRG could use fraud and pressure tactics to affect the outcome of the election.

Former members of government paramilitary groups created by Rios Montt in 1982 also threatened to disrupt the voting. Members of the paramilitary groups, which were used to kill suspected guerrilla sympathizers, are now demanding to be paid for their service. Portillo recently agreed to pay about 250,000 of them $660 each. But 200,000 others are now demanding to be paid as well, and they recently have blocked highways and briefly took four journalists hostage to press their claims.

The potential return of "the general," as Rios Montt is known, has divided this nation.

"Even if the general was the only candidate, I wouldn't support him," Enrique Mazariegos, 62, a jewelry maker, said after voting in the colonial city of Antigua. "He is the number one enemy of Guatemala."

"Not again. Not again," said Manuel Perez, 44, an electrician, when asked about Rios Montt as he left a polling station in Guatemala City.

As dictator, Rios Montt conducted a "scorched earth" campaign in which entire villages were burned in an attempt to wipe out support for anti-government guerrillas. Exhumations and testimony from survivors have shown that thousands of people were executed, raped and burned alive during his tenure.

In an interview in June, Rios Montt said he did not believe the massacres and other atrocities attributed to him actually occurred and called the genocide allegations "lies."

Many former paramilitary fighters and others said they supported Rios Montt because they believe he can bring the "hard hand" needed to restore security to Guatemala. "We appreciate what the general has done for us," said Anacleto Pich, 47, a farmer and former paramilitary member in the village of Santa Maria de Jesus, outside Antigua. "He can bring the peace we need for our society."

President Ronald Reagan enthusiastically backed Rios Montt in the 1980s. But now U.S. officials have distanced themselves from the former dictator, saying it would be "difficult" to have good relations with Guatemala with him as president.

Berger, 57, is a center-right moderate lawyer and businessman who is seen as representing Guatemala's old-guard elite. Colom, 52, an engineer who has worked extensively with poor Mayan communities in isolated highlands, is seen as a moderate from the left. His uncle was an opposition presidential candidate who was shot and killed by government security forces in 1979.

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth in Antigua contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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