GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A retired general promising to fight rampant crime had an early lead in Guatemala's national election, as voters appeared ready to choose a former military man for the presidency for the first time since democracy was restored in 1986.
Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party, known for his symbol of an "iron first," had 32 percent support, followed by businessmen Manuel Baldizon with 22 percent and Eduardo Suger with 14 percent, according preliminary results early Monday. Seven other candidates shared the remaining votes.
But with less than 20 percent of the voting stations counted, election magistrate Ulises Gomez said it was too early to confirm a trend.
In pre-election polls, Perez had the support of up to 48 percent of voters, Baldizon 18 percent and Suger 10 percent. Any candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a Nov. 6 runoff.
"We are going to double our efforts, now that we are in the second round," Perez said after learning he would be at least in the runoff.
Perez would be the first former military leader elected president in Guatemala after the end of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s.
A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, 93 percent of them by state forces and paramilitary groups. Still, many credit Perez with playing a key role in the march toward democracy, including negotiating the 1996 peace accords that ended the conflict.
Campaigning focused on fighting the street gangs and Mexican drug cartels operating in the lawless border region that have given Guatemala one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere. The candidates almost all lean to the right after the center-left party of outgoing President Alvaro Colom failed to field a candidate.
Eduardo Rodriguez Contenti, a 68-year-old veterinarian, said he wanted a president who could control the "violence, corruption, impunity and lack of employment" in Guatemala.
Rodriguez works in Guatemala's northern region of Peten, where 27 people were decapitated in an assault in March that authorities attribute to the Zetas drug gang, a Mexico-based organization that has expanded across the border. "My business has fallen by 60 percent, especially after what happened in March," Rodriguez said.
There were sporadic reports of election violence, but nothing like in 2007 when Perez narrowly lost to Colom. That campaign was marred by a wave of violence that left more than 50 candidates, party activists and family members dead.
Police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said Sunday that unknown assailants opened fire on the headquarters of Perez's Patriot Party in San Miguel Chaparron, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Guatemala city. A security guard at the headquarters died, as well as the bodyguard of the mayoral candidate for the rival National Unity for Hope.
Police are investigating the details of what happened.
Violence is epidemic in this nation of 14.7 million people, and organized crime has overrun many regions. Guatemala has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000, according to a report by the World Bank.
Seventy-five percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and the indigenous and rural poor who were most hurt by the war are also bearing the brunt of the current violence.
Among a field of 10 candidates, the only leftist running is Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu, who is polling with little more than 2 percent.
Baldizon, a tycoon-turned-political populist, has promised to employ the death penalty, now rarely used, and to televise executions.
Suger, who built a network of private universities, backs using private enterprise and a market-driven approach to solve economic and social problems.
Perez's strongest opponent was barred from running.
Sandra Torres, Colom's ex-wife, was declared ineligible by the Supreme Court because the constitution bars family members of the president from running. Torres divorced Colom before declaring her candidacy, but the courts saw the move as a maneuver to evade the law.