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Candidate wants army on streets

Published: 1:58PM Saturday July 21, 2007 Source: Reuters

Guatemalan presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina, a retired general and former spy chief, told Reuters on Friday he wanted more soldiers on the streets to curb out-of-control crime.

Security has become a major campaign issue in the small Central American country plagued by violent street gangs and drug traffickers moving cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

"Until we can get out of this security crisis and strengthen the police, we have to use the army," Perez Molina said in the interview.

Perez Molina ran the country's feared G-2 military intelligence department during part of the 1960-1996 war against leftist insurgents, which left almost a quarter of a million people dead or missing.

Human rights groups fear putting more soldiers on the streets could be a step backward for the country and lead to increased repression of civilians.

Perez Molina says the military has improved its human rights practices - once considered deplorable - and is more prepared to fight crime than the police, which he says are corrupt.

The founder of the right-wing Patriotic Party is running second in the polls behind center-left candidate Alvaro Colom. Guatemalans vote on Sept. 9, with a possible runoff in November if no candidate wins more than 40%.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, with close to 6,000 people killed last year.

Since last year, the military has been helping police patrol the capital's most dangerous neighborhoods, but Perez Molina said he wanted to expand the army's role in fighting crime. He was not specific about how he would do that.

The candidate accused the government of President Oscar Berger of letting death squads operate inside the security forces.

In February, four police detectives were arrested on charges of murdering three Salvadoran congressmen and their driver on a back road.

The policemen were later assassinated inside their maximum-security prison cell.

"Guatemala is a captured state, captured by drug traffickers, organized crime, gangs, corruption, impunity and poverty," Perez Molina said.

He often calls himself the "General of Peace," referring to his role in signing peace accords in 1996.

A UN report has said soldiers in the western province of El Quiche were responsible for at least three massacres while under Perez Molina's command in the early 1980s.

Perez Molina said he would support the prosecution of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide in Guatemalan and Spanish courts.

A Guatemalan court on Thursday ordered the military to declassify documents that opponents say could link Rios Montt to civilian massacres during his rule in the early 1980s.