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Guatemala, in US spotlight, goes to polls

Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

GUATEMALA CITY -- Guatemalan voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president and other lawmakers in this former Cold War battleground that Washington now views through the prism of two key strategic concerns -- U.S.-bound illicit immigration and drug trafficking.

Sandra Torres, a former first lady who has denied allegations of illicit campaign funding from an unsuccessful 2015 presidential run, is at the head of a crowded field to replace President Jimmy Morales, recent polls show.

Guatemalan law bars the controversial ex-TV comedian from seeking reelection.

Most polls show no candidate winning a majority, which would result in the top two finishers facing each other in an August runoff. Guatemalans are also electing a new Congress and mayors nationwide.

Guatemala and neighboring Honduras are the homelands of most Central American migrants arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border and seeking asylum. The number of migrants making it to U.S. territory has spiked in recent months, prompting President Donald Trump to put pressure on Mexico and on Central American nations to act to reduce the flows.

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News that Washington was working on a plan with Guatemala whereby many Central American asylum-seekers -- presumably those from neighboring Honduras and El Salvador -- would have to seek asylum here, not in the United States. Human rights groups immediately denounced the idea, noting Guatemala's high levels of violence and the fact that many of its own citizens feel compelled to flee for their safety.

 

The Trump administration is also seeking to bolster anti-drug efforts here -- Guatemala is a key transportation point for Colombian cocaine destined for the U.S. market.

The lead-up to Sunday's balloting has been chaotic even by the standards of Central America's often-turbulent politics.

Election officials in recent weeks have barred at least four candidates, including two possible front-runners: Zury Rios, the right-wing daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, because of her familial link to the ex-strongman; and Thelma Aldana, a former ex-attorney general whose prosecutorial zeal helped put another ex-president and other former officials behind bars.

Aldana's name was taken off the ballot for alleged financial irregularities during her term as attorney general -- allegations that Aldana has dismissed as politically motivated.

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