A former military general known for his “iron fist” campaign to stop Guatemala’s epidemic crime rates leads the field of 10 candidates in Sunday’s Presidential election.

Voters disappointed in outgoing President Alvaro Colom’s failure to reduce crime have indicated that Otto Perez Molina may be the best person to lead the charge in a nation with one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere.

“I’m voting because it’s my duty, because I’m Guatemalan — but also so we can get under control all of the violence, corruption, impunity and lack of employment in my country,” said 68-year-old veterinarian Luis Eduardo Rodriguez Contenti.

Mr. Rodriguez works in Guatemala’s violent 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 organisation that has expanded across the border.

“My business has fallen by 60 per cent, especially after what happened in March,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Preliminary results released by election officials late Sunday had Mr. Perez with 37 per cent support, followed by businessmen Manuel Baldizon with 24 per cent and Eduardo Suger with 15 per cent.

But with less than 3 per cent of the voting stations counted, election magistrate Ulises Gomez emphasised that it was too early to determine a tendency.

In pre-election polls, Mr. Perez had the support of as many as 48 per cent of voters, Mr. Baldizon 18 per cent and Mr. Suger 10 per cent.

Mr. Perez needs more than 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a November runoff. The winner takes office in January.

“Let’s not exclude the possibility that we could win in the first round,” Mr. Perez said after casting his vote in a local school on Sunday. “It will be the will of God and the Guatemalan people, but let’s not rule it out.”

The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Maria Eugenia Villagran, estimated the turnout to be higher than 50 per cent.

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