- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

A former dictator’s comeback attempt has plunged Guatemala into an unusually high level of violence in the run-up to the Nov. 9 elections.

A number of candidates and political activists have been targeted, purportedly by supporters of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front.

Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power after a coup in 1982, is the Republican Front’s candidate to succeed President Alfonso Portillo. His 18-month rule has been blamed for large-scale human rights abuses against more than 25,000 native Mayan people.

Gen. Rios Montt, 77, has gained ground in the polls, but remains in third place. He trails front-runner Oscar Berger, a conservative ex-mayor of Guatemala City, and Alvaro Colom, a former interior secretary running with the National Union of Hope Party.

The country’s constitution prohibits those who participated in coups from seeking the presidency. But in July, thousands of Rios Montt supporters descended on Guatemala City, shutting down the capital and creating chaos. The Constitutional Court then lifted the ban.

According to local campaign-monitoring groups, 21 candidates and activists — most belonging to opposition parties — have been killed since the campaign for presidential, legislative and local elections began.

Zuri Rios, daughter of Gen. Rios Montt and vice president of the Guatemalan Congress, is in Washington to reassure U.S. officials and lawmakers that Guatemala will not sink into chaos under a Rios Montt presidency. Finance Minister Eduardo Weyman is also in Washington, reassuring international financial organizations that the country’s modernization efforts will continue.

Mrs. Rios this week said that as president of Congress, her father has supported legislation that is of interest to the United States, and also cited structural reforms and improvement in the status of Indian tribes as achievements of the Republican Front.

Political violence is not new in the nation of 14 million people. Elections in 1995 and 1999 — when Gen. Rios Montt was barred from running — also witnessed considerable violence.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the general said there was no increase in violence from previous elections.

“I think the passion to be the winner that many supporters have makes certain excesses inevitable.” he said. “But I see that as normal.”

Eduardo Stein, a vice presidential candidate from the opposition Grand National Alliance, said Indian communities have been threatened with physical attacks and cuts in government aid if they do not support the ruling party.

The Republican Front “is being absolutely permissive” of violence, he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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