SAN MIGUEL PATAPA, Guatemala — Ismael Mancur was outside his family’s hardware store painting a sign for his senatorial campaign when a man stepped from the shadows and shot him three times in the chest.
Police have not uncovered direct evidence that Mancur’s killing was politically motivated, but Mancur was one of 21 candidates and activists slain since Guatemala’s election season began, according to groups monitoring events leading up to Nov. 9, the scheduled date for presidential, legislative and local elections. Fifteen others have survived gun or machete attacks.
Opposition parties and human rights organizations say the unusually high level of violence is linked to the controversial comeback effort of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, presidential candidate of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front party.
Political violence is nothing new in this nation of 14 million people. Elections in 1995 and 1999 were hardly peaceful, and Rios Montt was not a candidate; he was barred from running for president then.
Dictatorships and violence- and fraud-plagued elections used to be the norm across much of Central America. Other nations in the region have achieved relative political stability in recent years, and for Guatemala, another election season with a high body count would be a severe setback in its struggle to put its bloody political history behind it.
This month, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish a commission to investigate the wave of political violence sweeping this country ahead of elections.
The Organization of American States has condemned the violence and the authorities’ failure to capture any of the attackers.
Mancur was mayor of San Miguel Patapa, a working-class enclave on the outskirts of Guatemala City. He was not robbed by his killers, and his 24-year-old son, Durman, who was standing next to his father when he died, was unharmed.
The victim was active in the center-left National Union of Hope Party, and his son suspects the killer was a political rival from Rios Montt’s party.
The Republican Front has also faced some violence, including threats against its supporters and gunshots fired at a mayoral candidate.
But the overwhelming majority of victims, including Mancur, belonged to opposition parties. They include a mayoral candidate for an alliance of former guerrilla groups who was kidnapped and beaten, an opposition activist shot to death by a Republican Front mayor as he tacked posters over the mayor’s campaign signs, and another opposition activist who had his tongue cut out.
Rios Montt, 77, has gained ground in the polls but is still in third place. He trails front-runner Oscar Berger, a conservative ex-mayor of Guatemala City, and Alvaro Colom, a former interior secretary running with the National Union of Hope Party.
"I think the passion to be the winner that many supporters have makes certain excesses inevitable," Montt said. "But I see that as normal."
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