Guatemala and Nicaragua elected two former military commanders on November 6, whose vastly different political backgrounds belie their similarities on matters concerning organized crime.
Guatemala's (r) General Otto Perez Molina (shown in photo) spent much of his military career fighting leftist guerrillas in the highlands. He is part of what is known in Guatemala as the "30-70 generation," i.e., those that think 30 percent of the country is "beyond redemption."
How much Perez has put this philosophy into practice is subject of widespread debate (and fear) in Guatemala. Some say as an officer in the army he took part in "genocide" of indigenous villagers in the early 1980s in a campaign that wiped out dozens of communities in the most brutal phase of the country's three-decade long war.
A widely circulated video clip of Perez following a battle with rebels shows him as callous and possibly responsible for the line of dead bodies that flank him. He is also facing accusations that he participated in the 1992 disappearance and murder of a guerrilla fighter who was married to a U.S. citizen.
But Perez is much more complicated than his foes would paint him. He was largely responsible for aligning the various hard-line military factions behind the peace process with the rebels that ended the war in 1996. And he has distanced himself from ex-military officers who have been connected to organized criminal groups, popularly known as CIACS.
Still, Perez is hardly clean. His party has been accused of being connected to the Mendoza clan, a powerful criminal family in Guatemala. And he has been accused of running his own CIACS. No accusations against the former general have ever led to a prosecution, however, and Perez says they are part of a near-constant smear campaign against him.
The trajectory of Perez's counterpart in Nicaragua is equally vexing. After helping command the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to overthrow longtime Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza, Daniel Ortega (shown in the photo to the right, during his first presidency) has struggled to keep a lid on his own authoritarian tendencies, and allegations of connections to organized crime have dogged him throughout his career in politics.
During his time as president in the late 1980s, his government imprisoned hundreds of "political" dissenters, ruthlessly attacked Miskito indigenous communities suspected of assisting U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary forces, and systematically attempted to silence the media.
Ironically, Ortega now draws comparisons to Somoza, and, while that is a stretch, there are similarities. Like Somoza, he has been accused of widespread electoral fraud. Also like Somoza, Ortega seems bent on making Nicaragua his personal fiefdom, buying or obtaining stakes in numerous business ventures ranging from media to real estate.
Dissenters are not jailed as much as they are threatened with exclusion from an economic boom that is, in part, due to nearly $500 million in annual oil subsidies the Nicaraguan government receives from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez government, a staunch Ortega ally.
Like his Guatemalan counterpart, Ortega has not escaped accusations of being connected to organized crime. FSLN strongmen Tomas Borge and Lenin Cerna are alleged to have ties to Colombian drug traffickers dating back to the 1980s. Most recently, a U.S. diplomatic cable released by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks said that the Sandinistas had engineered the release of several suspected traffickers by buying off judges using proceeds from a drug seizure. Accusations of so-called "narco-liberations" continued throughout Ortega's recent term in power.
But while both leaders have sketchy pasts and questionable allies, they also seem to have decent relations with the United States when it comes to fighting organized crime. Perez's Patriotic Party worked closely with the embassy to draft and pass new anti-crime legislation in recent years, as well as to annul the appointment of the new head of the Institute for Public Criminal Defenders who was suspected of collusion with organized crime.
Ortega frequently criticizes the U.S. government in public but maintains a steady relationship with the "Northern Giant" in private. The U.S. State Department recently qualified its relations with the Nicaraguan Navy, for instance, as "excellent," and the U.S. has given Nicaragua close to $40 million in anti-narcotics aid since 2007, a year after Ortega was elected president.
Both Perez's and Ortega's governments will rely on the military to fight organized crime. Perez's "mano dura," or "iron fist," policy has a heavy military component. According to an interview he gave Plaza Publica, this includes allowing the military to purge itself of corruption, something many people believe will be a difficult, if not impossible, task. Perez argues that the military is the only institution that is equipped to do such a purge, but many worry about intelligence service's long history as a force of repression and, later, a virtual recruiting center and staging area for the CIACS.
Ortega has steadily increased his relationship with the military, culminating the naming of a former general as his vice president. He also exercises a tight control over the police, a policy which has been given a lot of the credit for keeping murder rates lower than in the rest of the region.
Enforcement, however, is only a small part of the equation. Both presidents will inherit deeply suspect and strained judicial systems. In Guatemala, for instance, extradition proceedings are currently stalled for at least six major criminal figures who are wanted for drug trafficking in the United States.
Unfortunately, both presidents have shown they may prioritize politics over justice. Perez has been critical of the country's Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and has hinted that he may remove her before the end of her five year term.
Paz y Paz has jailed dozens of suspected high-level criminals, including over 40 members of feared Mexican gang the Zetas. In addition, she has been an outspoken proponent of the trials implicating former military officers in abuses during the civil war.
Perez has also been critical of, and appears ready to cut support for, the United Nations' judicial body, known by its acronym CICIG, which has helped investigate some of the country's most powerful criminal organizations, train prosecutors and police, and modernize the country's legal code.
For his part, Ortega's rebel past seems to be interfering with his own ability to administer justice. Several guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) gained political asylum during his first term.