Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: Bloody Campaign Trail

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 15 2007 (IPS) - “They were just going to kill us, without any warning. They chased us and started shooting,” said Héctor Rosales, a candidate for the presidency of Guatemala, who almost become one of dozens of victims of the political violence that is marring the campaign for the Sept. 9 elections.

Since the official call for elections on May 2, at least 38 people have been killed, including activists, candidates and political leaders, most of them in shootings, José Dávila, the head of the Central American Institute of Political Studies (INCEP), told IPS.

INCEP forms part of Election Watch 2007, a coalition of five non-governmental organisations monitoring the campaign.

“We were a hairsbreadth away from being murdered. They tried everything possible,” Rosales, the presidential candidate for the small Authentic Integral Development (DIA) party, told IPS. He blamed members of the rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) for the attack, because the attackers “wore FRG caps, jackets and T-shirts.”

On Aug. 10, Rosales was driving a car decorated with DIA pennants in the western community of Zacualpa, in the department (province) of Quiché, with DIA parliamentary candidate Liby Solís Wer and her 25-year-old son, when another vehicle gave chase and its occupants started firing on them. All three escaped unharmed.

An FRG source told IPS that their delegates in Quiché were asked to investigate the case, although “we do not think that the attackers were FRG supporters, and far less active members.”

With less than a month to go before the general elections, the number of murders has surpassed the 29 killings reported during the 2003 campaign, Election Watch 2007 reports point out. So far, over 60 “acts of violence” related to the election campaign have been reported.

Fourteen presidential candidates are vying for the votes of Guatemala’s 5.9 million eligible voters. Álvaro Colom of the centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE) is ahead in the polls, followed by General Otto Pérez Molina of the rightwing Patriotic Party (PP), and governing party candidate Alejandro Giammattei, of the centre-right Great National Alliance (GANA).

Seventeen of the political killings targeted members of UNE, while GANA has lost five supporters and the PP, four. Members of parties like the centre-left coalition Encounter for Guatemala (EG), which backs indigenous presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, have also been attacked.

Meanwhile, some candidates are promising voters – half of whom are still undecided, according to opinion polls – “total security” and a “zero tolerance” approach to crime, according to their campaign slogans.

“One of the causes of political violence in Guatemala is that the perpetrators of these crimes get away scot-free,” Mario Polanco, the head of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation, told IPS.

Polanco said he thinks the origins of the attacks may lie in internal party rivalries or organised crime, and said they cannot be cleared up while “the authorities remain incapable of investigating them.”

“There is no true justice,” candidate Solís Wer complained to IPS. She lived through “moments of anguish” during the attack, and thinks that “it would be worthwhile” for the international community to intervene.

Dávila agreed with Polanco that “impunity is rife,” and without proper investigations, “one can only speculate about the causes of political violence.”

Recognising the weakness of its institutions, on Aug. 1 Guatemala approved the creation of an International Commission against Impunity.

By means of an agreement between the government and the United Nations, this body will investigate the structure, operational modalities, and sources of finance of clandestine security organisations and illegal armed groups, as well as their possible links with state entities or agents and other sectors that violate human rights.

Political killings swell the numbers of violent deaths, which include murders of women, human rights activists and extrajudicial killings in this Central American country of 12.7 million. Official figures indicate that in the first half of 2007 alone, 2,857 murders were committed, most of them involving the use of firearms.

INCEP’s Dávila said that political violence is rooted in the “violent history” of this country, where poverty is widespread and an internal armed conflict was waged for 36 years (1960-1996).

The civil war cost the lives of 200,000 people, mainly Indians. The army was responsible for over 90 percent of human rights violations committed during the armed conflict, according to the independent Historical Clarification Commission.

According to Election Watch 2007, this electoral campaign is the bloodiest since that of 1985, when the country began to hold democratic elections after a succession of authoritarian regimes.

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