GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemalans on Sunday vote in a second round run-off election for a new president who is likely to face a major challenge coping with a deal signed with Washington in July to turn the country into a buffer zone to stem migration.
Denied the chance to vote for some popular candidates excluded from the race, voters have struggled to warm to two veteran campaigners competing to lead the poor, violence-plagued Central American country for a four-year term.
Below are profiles of both candidates.
Seeking the presidency for a third time, former first lady Torres, 63, is the candidate for the center-left National Unity of Hope (UNE), a party she founded 2002 with her ex-husband Alvaro Colom, president of Guatemala from 2008 to 2012.
In June, Torres won the first round of voting by more than 10 percentage points. But she failed to win an outright majority and pollsters put her in second place for Sunday’s vote.
A proponent of social programs to alleviate poverty, Torres wants to put troops on the streets to fight gangs that have made the country one of the most violent in the Americas, helping to spur mass migration to the United States.
Torres has vowed to improve conditions for the three million Guatemalans living in the United States, many of them illegally.
She says Guatemala’s Congress must pass the divisive “safe third country” agreement aimed at curbing Central American migration north that outgoing President Jimmy Morales agreed to with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.
That deal aims to grant U.S. visas to some Guatemalan workers but her campaign said it also wants to secure better bilateral trading terms in return for supporting it.
The daughter of a former town mayor in a province of the jungle department of Peten, Torres is viewed by her allies as gifted organizer and leader. Critics accuse her of having authoritarian leanings.
During Colom’s tenure, Torres made a name for herself with welfare programs to help the poor. However, the schemes drew criticism from some business leaders.
Torres divorced Colom, her second husband, before his term ended in what many saw as a way to circumvent rules that prohibit family members running for the presidency.
Analysts say she has strong support in rural areas, home to the majority of Guatemala’s poor and indigenous populations, which suffered most during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war.
Like Morales, Torres ended up in the crosshairs of a probe by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations anti-graft body whose work led to the ouster and imprisonment of ex-President Otto Perez in 2015.
Torres has not been charged with wrongdoing because the law gives immunity to public officials, but she has gone along with Morales’ decision to shut down the CICIG, which enjoyed strong popular support in Guatemala.
Opponent Alejandro Giammattei says Torres wants to turn the country into another Nicaragua or Venezuela, to which she responded, “Neither socialist nor communist, I am realistic.”
Torres has four children from her first marriage.
A trained surgeon with years of experience in state bureaucracies, the 63-year-old has dedicated much of his life trying to win public office.
Now running for the presidency for the fourth time, polls suggest the father of three may be close to achieving it.
One of his campaign proposals is to create an “investment wall” instead of a physical wall on the border between Guatemala and Mexico to curb migration north.
His popularity has been boosted by pledges like bringing back the death penalty.
He said that drug traffickers had offered him money but that neither he nor his Vamos party, which was created in 2017, have received “a penny” from organized crime.
Giammattei has suffered for multiple sclerosis for years, making him reliant on crutches. His resume includes jobs in the health ministry, public transportation, the municipal fire department and a state water company.
His first taste of politics was at Guatemala’s electoral tribunal, where he helped oversee elections in the 1980s and 1990s. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Guatemala City in 1999 and 2003, then failed in three bids for the presidency.
He is particularly remembered for his time as head of Guatemala’s penitentiary system between 2005 and 2007.
While he was in charge, seven inmates died in a prison. He was arrested for the incidents in 2010 and accused of abuse of power, murder and extrajudicial killing. He denied the charges.
Giammattei was not tried over the case and was released 10 months later after being held in a military detention center.
“No more dreaming,” he said during his campaign rallies. “We’ve spent years dreaming, but with your support we will change Guatemala. Either we unite, or we go down.”
Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Additional reporting and writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Dave Graham and Richard Chang