Against a backdrop of 24 politically motivated murders since January 2011, a violent campaign, and a strong police presence during the poll, Guatemala's seven million voters have given the first round of the four-yearly presidential election to a retired general, Otto Pérez Molina, who promises a crackdown on crime, drug gangs, and corruption. With 98 per cent of the votes counted, the Patriotic Party's Mr. Pérez leads the tycoon-politician Manuel Baldizón of the Renewed Democratic Liberation Party (Lider) by 36 per cent to 23 per cent. The runoff will be held on November 6, and the new President will take office in January. The key campaign issues have been violence and insecurity. Mexican cartels are now involved in the drug gangs; 90 per cent of cocaine entering the United States crosses the Guatemalan border into Mexico and goes northwards; the murder rate is about a dozen killings a day. Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the western hemisphere, and several provinces are under martial law. The violence has also hit employment in one of Latin America's 10 poorest countries. The voters seem to have responded more favourably to Mr. Pérez's promises of tough measures — he played a significant role in the 1990s in ending the country's 30-year civil war, which took a toll of 200,000 lives — than to his opponent's plans for enhanced welfare policies.
But this contest is also the making of fortuitous factors. The Supreme Court barred a strong contender, Sandra Torres Casanova, from running; the Guatemalan Constitution allows only a single presidential term, and Ms Torres's divorce from her husband, outgoing President Álvaro Colom Caballeros, was seen by the court as a stratagem to evade the law. Mr. Colom's centre-left National Unity of Hope Party then decided not to field a candidate. In the runoff, Mr. Baldizón is expected to benefit from the absence of a social-democratic rival. Whoever wins, the drugs policy will need more than tough talk. The ‘war on drugs' — the phrase was coined by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1969 — may sound good, but the punitive strategy that followed was a disaster and Washington abandoned it in 2010. Fortunately, better models are available: Portugal, for example, has had considerable success with its 2001 law turning possession into an administrative offence while keeping trafficking as a serious crime. Guatemala's new President will need political courage to explore fresh cures to the country's life-threatening ailments.