- Associated Press - Thursday, January 12, 2012

GUATEMALA CITY Otto Perez Molina takes office as Guatemala’s new president Saturday with a top priority of ending a long-standing U.S. ban on military aid imposed over concerns about abuses during the Central American country’s 36-year civil war.

Mr. Perez, who was a top military official during the war, has long insisted there were no massacres, human rights violations or genocide in a conflict that killed 200,000 civilians, mostly Mayan Indians.

But he won the presidency campaigning on a pledge to crack down on soaring crime, including one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, and he will need U.S. help to battle the Mexican drug gangs that have overrun Guatemala.

Close advisers say he supports meeting the conditions set by various U.S. congressional appropriations acts for restoring aid that was first eliminated in 1978 halfway through the civil war.


Among the required steps is reforming a weak justice system that has failed to bring those responsible for abuses to justice. A U.N.-sponsored postwar truth commission said state forces and related paramilitary groups committed most of the killings.

The U.S. also insists that the government support a U.N.-supported anti-corruption team whose prosecution effort has been criticized by Guatemala’s political elite.

“I do believe Otto Perez Molina will pursue the lifting of the military ban,” said Harold Caballeros, the incoming foreign minister. “There is nothing that I hold to be more certain than Otto Perez Molina’s commitment to improving the justice system as a whole in Guatemala.”

Transition team leader Eduardo Stein, a former Guatemalan vice president, said Mr. Perez shares the same goals as Washington.

Mr. Stein said Mr. Perez will keep the current attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who is supported by the U.S. and human rights groups for her aggressive prosecution and reputation for staying above the country’s rampant public corruption.

But he added that Mr. Perez is doing what is right for Guatemala, not for the United States.

“The president-elect has decided to continue with the current attorney general and to confirm some of these civil rights issues out of conviction, not because of a request from a foreign government,” Mr. Stein said.

The 61-year-old Mr. Perez, a member of the right-wing Patriotic Party, lost his first presidential bid in 2007 to Alvaro Colom, who he is succeeding Saturday.

He won handily this time with campaign promises to deal with criminals with an “iron fist,” a stand that resonated in a country of more than 13 million people where murders are committed at a rate of 45 for every 100,000 residents. That is almost three times higher than in neighboring Mexico.