Guatemalan Businessman Leads Vote for President Alvaro Colom, a former businessman wanting to spend more on education and social programs, was firmly out front in Guatemala's presidential election. Not all votes are in, but he is leading a former army general promising a firm hand on security.
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Guatemalan Businessman Leads Vote for President

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Guatemalan Businessman Leads Vote for President

Guatemalan Businessman Leads Vote for President

Guatemalan Businessman Leads Vote for President

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Alvaro Colom, a former businessman wanting to spend more on education and social programs, was firmly out front in Guatemala's presidential election. Not all votes are in, but he is leading a former army general promising a firm hand on security.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Guatemalans went to the polls yesterday to vote for a new president. The contest pitted a former army general who promised a firm hand on security against a former businessman who wanted to spend more in education and social programs. With nearly all votes tallied, it looks like the businessman, Alvaro Colom, won the election.

But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, neither candidate really impressed the voting public, and Colom will face a myriad of problems.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's election day in San Juan Sacatepequez, and all around me in the central park are hundreds of people who've been bussed in from the surrounding indigenous-highland communities to vote. The army and the police are out in full force, and it's peaceful so far.

Unlike what happened on Thursday, where here where I'm standing, three men were lynched for being suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. They were beaten and then burned alive.

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A special newspaper edition on the murders is selling briskly at the market in this highland town an hour outside the capital. Edgar Buror(ph) is with the local fire brigade. And even though he works in law enforcement, he reflects a general attitude around here, that politics don't matter when violence is so pervasive.

Mr. EDGAR BUROR (Fireman, Local Fire Brigade, San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala): (Through translator) I think it was the right kind of justice because of the situation we're living with in Guatemala. None of these presidential candidates - whether they have an iron fist or a velvet glove -will make a difference. People are fed up, and they're taking matters into their own hands. And they need to, because the government does not provide justice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Only 2 percent of murders are solved in this, one of the most violent countries in the Americas. According to a local newspaper, there were 33 lynchings in 2006. So far this year, there have been 29.

Guatemala has also become a major drug transshipment point and has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the region.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm at one of the polling stations, and it is completely empty. There are very few people coming here to vote, and I'm going to ask one of the women here if it's been a very busy day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, only about an estimated 45 percent of Guatemalans turned out to cast their vote. It is a general apathy here.

In the 11 years since the peace accords were signed, many people say their lot in life has not improved, and many of Guatemala's politicians are known to have links to organized crime. Still, Alvaro Colom seems to have won the day due to the rural vote. His message of improving the economy and putting more social programs in place put him in a lead in what was a tight race.

Political analyst Glen David Cox says that while Colom has a lot of support in indigenous communities, he's also a former businessman and a well-known political operative who has run for the presidency several times.

Mr. GLEN DAVID COX (Political Analyst): He's gotten the brand of being a populist or being the left-of-center candidate. And I think that's, to some extent, a misnomer in that he also has significant backing from the private sector.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The former general, Otto Perez Molina, who's main campaign focus is on security, lost big in many areas outside the city. Guatemala lived through a 36-year-long civil war that killed over 200,000 people. The memories of what the military did here have not been forgotten.

Experience has taught the people here not to trust Guatemala's political class. Alvaro Colom's challenge will be not only to deliver on his promises, but deliver fast.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Guatemala City.

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