Hard Questions For Ex-Intel Chief Pérez Molina, Likely Guatemala’s Next President

Exclusive: Otto Pérez Molina, the winner of this week’s first-round presidential election in Guatemala, tells Le Monde that he “has nothing to hide and nothing to regret” from his days as the army’s intelligence head during the country’s long civil war.

Otto Pérez Molina in 2007, raising his hand in his party's 'iron fist' salute. (Surizar)
Otto Pérez Molina in 2007, raising his hand in his party's "iron fist" salute. (Surizar)
Jean-Michel Caroit

Retired Gen. Otto Pérez Molina finished first in Sunday's presidential election in Guatemala, earning 36% of the vote in a crowded field. Pérez Molina, a conservative, is favored to win an upcoming Nov. 6 runoff against Manuel Baldizón, a wealthy businessman, who garnered 24% support in first-round voting. If he wins the runoff, Pérez Molina will become Guatemala's first military-trained head of state since the end of the country's 36-year civil war (1960-1996). During the 1980s, the candidate headed the army's powerful intelligence unit.

Pérez Molina's military background and promises of treating violent drug traffickers with an "iron fist" have proven to be political assets in a country with one of the world's highest murder rates. But he also has no shortage of critics, particularly among victims of the countless war-era human rights violations. The civil war claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. Most of those deaths came at the hands of the military, which some historians accuse of authoring Latin America's only 20th century genocide.

Le Monde: You've been accused of committing human rights violations during the civil war, and of being involved in the killing of the guerilla commander Efrain Bamaca. How do you respond?
Otto Pérez Molina: I retired from the army 11 year ago. Right now I don't benefit from any immunity, and the current government has done everything possible to hinder my candidacy by bringing up the issue of human rights violations. But they haven't been able to prove anything at all. They weren't even able to present a formal complaint with evidence in order to force me into the courts. That's simply because at no point did I break the law or violate the rights of Guatemalans.

As far as the Efrain Bamaca case goes, there are two versions. One that was presented before the courts. There was a trial that lasted nine years, and in the end the courts ruled that he was killed in combat. The other version, the one put forth by the guerillas, is that he wasn't killed in combat. But they've never been able to prove that. There was an investigation in which 14 military personnel were implicated. I was never on that list. I was never subpoenaed, not even as a witness during those nine years. I have absolutely nothing to hide. Nor do I regret anything. I went into the region Quiché to defend the population and reestablish peace. The truth is that I am very appreciated and recognized in that region.

Some people worry that your possible arrival to power will result in a militarization of the state. Is there any basis to those fears?
There is no basis. I don't envisage militarizing the institutions in charge of security. Instead we want to professionalize the police. We want to create a university track for officers. Helen Mack a outspoken human rights activist has done excellent work as the head of a committee planning police reforms. It's time to move to the execution phase… They say that I'm going to usher in an authoritarian government because I'm a retired general. There's no basis to that. I respect the Constitution and the laws, and I am going to reinforce democracy.

Are you going to use the army to fight drug traffickers, as President Felipe Calderon has done in Mexico?
The situation in Guatemala is different. This a country used for transferring and storing drugs. In order to take back control of the corridors that the drug traffickers use, we need to use special army units like the "kaibiles' an elite unit and the parachutists. And we should fight organized crime by applying laws that permit the use of such things as infiltrating agents and tapping telephones.

Weren't the Zetas Mexican drug cartel trained by the kaibiles?
Some former kaibiles were recruited by the Zetas, who offered them a good salary. But the kaibile unit itself hasn't been contaminated by the traffickers. We're talking about an elite unit that has participated in peacekeeping missions all over the world.

If you win the presidency, will the courts continue to pursue cases already begun against military personnel accused of violations during the civil war?
We will respect the independence of the state powers. If the judiciary pursues these cases, we will not intervene. We'll let them advance in the courts.

Why haven't you made public the sources of your campaign funding? According to civil society groups, you have gone way past the legal spending limits?
First of all, we've said we will mount a frontal attack on the traffickers, so the Partido Patriota (Otto Pérez" Patriot Party) hasn't received any money from the drug gangs. We've asked our contributors to reveal their identities publicly, but they haven't wanted to. Not many have given us permission to reveal their identities. We must respect their privacy since they're afraid of being victims of extortion, kidnapping or entrapment by tax authorities The problem of financing political parties is something that should be discussed by the Guatemalan society as a whole.

What are your priorities as far as the region is concerned?
With the United States, we would like to develop a partnership in order to mount a frontal attack against the drug traffickers, as well as protect the rights of Guatemalans living in the United States. The same goes for Mexico, where Guatemalan migrants are kidnapped, extorted and sometimes murdered. Just like there are international criminal courts, we could create a regional court to try drug traffic-related crimes.

Read the original interview in French

Photo- Surizar

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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