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Falling bodies and stunning upsets: Election day in Guatemala

November 7, 2007 | 10:10 am

Covering an election in Latin America is almost always an encounter with the unexpected, and Guatemala's presidential vote this past Sunday was no exception. Most of the pundits in Guatemala and abroad expected the rightist Otto Perez Molina to win, given his lead in preelection polls. When I visited polling places Sunday morning in Guatemala City, it was hard to find voters supporting Perez Molina's opponent, the center-left Alvaro Colom. Guatemala City and its million or so residents are suffering through a horrible crime wave — and Perez Molina, a former army general, was promising a "firm hand" against criminals.

So when I sauntered over to watch the results come in at the Tikal Futura Hotel, where Guatemala's election authorities had set up a counting center, I was a bit surprised to look up and see this partial result flashing on one of the big screens: Colom 59.4%, Perez Molina 40.5%, with 14% of the votes counted. Well, every election veteran knows that certain regions are counted first, and that a big lead at 8 p.m. can turn into a decisive defeat at 11 p.m. But we expected Perez Molina to be leading early, since Guatemala City was his stronghold, and everywhere in the world the urban vote is counted before the rural vote. In search of some clarification, I approached one of the electoral officials, and found a very nice woman who spoke impeccable English. (she had lived in Glendale, Calif., for several years.)

"No, sir," she said. "Those numbers are not complete. They are only for the rest of the country, excluding Guatemala City. The numbers for Guatemala City are on that other screen," she added, pointing to the far side of the room. The technicians of Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal hadn't figured out how to get the results from the capital city merged with the results from the provinces, she explained. I quickly wandered over to that other big screen, and saw this result for Guatemala City and its suburbs: Perez Molina 59.7%, Colom 40.3%, with 90% of the vote counted.

I shared what I had learned with my colleagues from the Washington Post and New York Times. Together we got out our pencils and did the math, adding the numbers from the two screens. We quickly realized that the rightist Perez Molina was almost certain to lose the election. Why? Because if you added the votes from Guatemala City to the votes from the rest of the country, the center-left Colom was slightly ahead. And the votes from Guatemala City, Perez Molina's stronghold, were almost completely tallied, while hundreds of thousands of rural votes were still out there. Very few of the reporters and election observers around us seemed to realize this, except for one young man in a dark suit who was laughing and yelling, "We won! We won!" into his cellphone. He was one of Colom's nephews.

About three hours later, long after the election technicians had figured out how to get the nationwide count unified and up on one of the big screens, the Guatemalan news media proclaimed Colom the winner. I rushed back to my hotel to write my story. On the way, my driver and I hit an unexpected Sunday night traffic jam. “What’s this?” I asked. A few seconds later, we encountered a policeman standing over a bundle. Closer inspection showed the bundle to be a human body, tied up in white tape and wrapped in clear plastic.

“They threw the body from the overpass,” my driver said, pointing to the bridge we had just passed under. More than likely, it was another drug-related execution — and a reminder of the challenges Colom faces as Guatemala’s president-elect.

Less than 24 hours later, I was back in the Tikal Futura Hotel, waiting in the lobby. A rattletrap white van pulled up to the front entrance. A very nice woman with no direct connection to the Colom campaign had somehow arranged for a colleague and me to interview the president-elect. Guatemala is a small country; she had friends who had friends who knew the man who will be the next president.

Posted by Héctor Tobar in Guatemala City

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