Janine Zacharia: In Guatemala, 2 candidates spar over a legal breakdown
GUATEMALA CITY: At a luxury hotel in Guatemala's capital, well-heeled American parents push strollers bearing infants adopted in the impoverished Central American country.
In most places the scene would be heartwarming. In Guatemala, where the authorities say some mothers sell their babies to middlemen, it can be disturbing.
Guatemala is the victim of a broken legal system, reflected in weakly regulated adoptions, easy cocaine trafficking and uninvestigated murders. The Nov. 4 presidential runoff between the retired general Otto Pérez Molina and the former economic official Álvaro Colom is largely a referendum on how to confront the lawlessness.
"What's happening with the adoptions is really what's happening with everything in this country," said Lucrecia Marroquín de Palomo, 56, a member of Guatemala's Congress. "Here crime pays, because if you are a drug dealer," nobody gets caught, she said. "If you kill your wife, nobody knows."
Guatemala has one of the world's highest per capita murder rates: more than 5,000 killings a year in a population of 13 million. Violence has tarred the presidential campaign, with at least 40 people killed, and threatens a fledgling democracy.
The country is "very weak," said Manfredo Marroquín, director general of the Guatemala City-based Citizens Action, a group monitoring the elections. "It's like a narco-state."
Guatemala's problems end up on American streets, making stability a matter of U.S. concern. About one in 10 Guatemalans resides in the United States; two-thirds are illegal immigrants. The border between the United States and Mexico is closer to Guatemala than to New York.
Colombian cocaine flows north through Guatemala, along with drug-smuggling Central American gangs that bring violence to cities including Los Angeles.
In that climate, Pérez Molina, 57, and Colom, 56, offered contrasting visions of how to fix the justice system and restore security. The two men will compete in the runoff after failing to win a majority in the Sept. 9 election.
Pérez Molina, of the Patriotic Party, whose campaign posters feature a clenched fist, has pledged to enlarge the police force by 50 percent, impose the death penalty and rule with a "strong hand."
Colom, a former vice minister of the economy who heads the National Unity of Hope party, is focusing on creating jobs. His campaign slogan, "Guatemala Cannot Return to the Past," alludes to Pérez Molina's history as head of army intelligence.
Colom says his opponent will take the country back to a dictatorship, invoking the specter of Guatemala's 36-year military campaign against indigenous people that killed 200,000.
A firm hand is something many Guatemalans, fed up with drug-related crime, might welcome. "People are saying now we need a strongman," Marroquín de Palomo said.
Lax police work, corruption, fear and a lack of investigative tools all contribute to the crime surge, Guatemalan and international observers say.
Courts get convictions in as few as 2 percent of murder cases. Perhaps partly as a result, justice is vigilante. "There is strong evidence that some acts of social cleansing - executions of gang members, criminal suspects and other 'undesirables' - are committed by police personnel," UN investigators said in a February report.
Improvements come slowly. A forensics institute was established only two months ago but has no funding.
"We received a country with many corrupt, broken institutions," said Guatemala's outgoing vice president, Eduardo Stein.
As adoptions have grown - up 70 percent between 2002 and 2006 to 4,135 a year, according to U.S. visa data - so have efforts to stop the trafficking in children.
The U.S. Embassy requires DNA testing to verify birth mothers and counter "unscrupulous operators" seeking to create "a paper trail for an illegally obtained child," a State Department advisory says. The United States is also pressing for compliance with international adoption rules, which Guatemala says it will do by Jan. 1.
The U.S. government sees free trade as one way to ease the poverty that drives people to illicit behavior. One such deal increased exports from the scenic Quatro Pinos agricultural cooperative outside Guatemala City, where women package snow peas, squash and baby corn for shipment to the U.S. retailer Costco Wholesale.
As farm goods are leaving the country, tourists are coming in. Mayan ruins and lush terrain have helped attract 942,000 visitors in the first seven months, almost 10 percent more than a year earlier.
In an acknowledgement that it needs help, Guatemala authorized the United Nations last month to appoint a commission to investigate crimes. The United States is also working with Guatemala to overhaul its police force and justice system. One measure in the U.S. House would commit $4 million to combating youth gangs.
J. J., a thin, mustachioed 27-year-old, is reason for hope. The tattoos that cover his body are the only sign of his past as a gang leader. Watching him assemble a computer, it hardly seems possible that he killed someone when he was 12, as he claims. He said he had since found Jesus and, with the help of a U.S. government-aid program, a job.
Still, finding recruits like J. J. is tough work. "The gangs," said another former gang member named California, "will never die."
Karla Palomo contributed reporting from New York.