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Otto Perez leads presidential election in Guatemala

Otto Perez, a former general vowing to crack down on crime in Central America's most violent country,  and Alvaro Colom, a businessman who promises to alleviate desperate poverty, are leading in Guatemala's presidential election.

With about one quarter of the voting stations reporting, Otto Perez, a former general from the conservative Patriot Party had 26 percent of the vote compared with 23 percent for center-left candidate Alvaro Colom. Nobel Laureate and Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu trailed with 3 percent, according to results published on Guatemala's Electoral Tribunal website.

If none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote from Sunday's election, a runoff between the top two finishers will take place Nov. 4.

Pre-election polling had shown Perez and Colom, a three-time presidential contender, running about even and far ahead of other candidates.

Minutes before polls closed Sunday, a mob of about 3,000 people set a voting booth on fire in the town of El Cerinal, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of Guatemala City.

They then went to the town's other voting center and began burning the ballots. They dispersed after 20 heavily armed police officers fired tear gas at them.

The mob accused El Cerinal's mayor, who is running for re-election, of bringing people from neighboring El Salvador to cast votes in his favor. It was the most violent incident in an otherwise calm election day.

Guatemalans cast their ballots under the watchful eye of more than 34,000 police and soldiers, on alert after weeks of campaigning marred by violence.

About 50 candidates, party activists and their family members were killed in the months before the election, underscoring public safety issues plaguing the Central American nation.

"I want things to change because there's too much violence and crime in my neighborhood," said Judith Orellana, a 32-year-old nurse, as she lined up to vote in her gang-infested precinct outside Guatemala City.

Menchu, one of 12 other presidential candidates on Sunday's ballot, trailed in public opinion polls throughout the campaign and accused the political establishment of sowing fear of a president from Guatemala's poor Mayan Indian population.

But on Sunday, she adopted a more conciliatory tone and said she was "very content at the end of the campaign."

Menchu is the first Mayan woman ever to run for president in this country where 42 percent of the population is descendant from the ancient Mayan civilization. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her human rights work following Guatemala's brutal civil war that killed 200,000 people, most of them Mayans.

Guatemala is Central America's most violent country, with more than 5,000 homicides per year. The country of 12 million is also a corridor for Colombian cocaine heading to the United States, and home to rampant corruption and a culture of violence left over from the 1960-1996 civil war.

Perez, who has fought off allegations of a tarnished human rights record from the civil war era, promises a "firm hand" on crime: hiring more police officers, using the military to fight drug gangs and instituting the death penalty.

Increased security will attract investment, he says - creating badly needed jobs in a country where 51 percent of the population lives on less than US$2 (EUR Ђ1.50) a day.

Colom worked with war refugees in isolated highlands and is an ordained Mayan minister. He proposes increasing social spending to fight poverty and boost employment, and overhauling the judicial system.

Voters also were choosing 158 national legislators and 332 mayors. At least half of 6 million registered voters turned out Sunday, according to Guatemala's Electoral Tribunal.

At a poll in the small town of San Jose Villanueva, just outside Guatemala City, about 150 people accosted Mayor Salvador Gandara and prevented him from casting a ballot. The mob accused Gandara, who is seeking a third consecutive term, of having voted already.

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