The market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala is sometimes called the finest in Central America. It is largest on Sundays and Thursdays and, the day the visitor arrived, it was further swollen by country people come to town to vote in the run-off election for president. He could barely make his way down the lanes, squeezing by locals and passing gauntlets of aggressive vendors. The hardware, fabric, fruit, and vegetables are sold not far from the wooden masks and other “artesania” (for which the proper English is souvenirs). A head taller than most of the Quiche Mayans, the tourist recalled reading that the ancient Mayan nobles were taller, apparently more naturally “noble” in appearance, than the commoners, due, of course, to their better diet. Children approached, at first selling, then begging, then just trailing after with diminished hopes. A haggard specter-woman appeared, saying she’s hungry, pointing to her mouth, “I have no tortillas.” Legless, wheelchairless people perched in front of the Iglesia de Santo Tomás. Inside the church the row of low pagan Mayan altars up the central aisle have many fresh offerings of copal incense and flower petals, while in the side chapels candles are available for those who prefer the intercession of Catholic saints.
Outside, by the plaza, two long tables were set up to certify voters, and then allow them to mark their ballots and deposit them in a box. Behind the officials and registrars were naïve murals depicting the suffering of the people during the civil war. A man working his cornfield is approached by a soldier with a raised assault rifle; a woman screams as her home is burned; a group of peasants scatters at the approach of helicopters; a depiction of wolves’ heads is titled “lynchings”; people make ritual offerings while in the background, their fellow countrymen are burned alive and crucified.
I had difficulty in choosing a candidate in this run-off between two right-wingers, a plutocrat and a mass-murderer. On the one hand, one might vote for multimillionaire Manuel Baldizón of the Democratic Freedom Revival party. Often accused of ties to organized crime and certainly linked to the previous corrupt administration, he had promised to lead Guatemala’s team to the World Cup and, more plausibly, to bring in the death penalty and to televise executions. Attempting the gain credibility as a populist, he borrowed an old gambit from Argentina’s Juan Perón and offered every worker an extra month’s salary every year. He claims to be a devout Christian. In the most puzzling aspect of his career, he did earn a genuine honors degree in English from Oxford.
He was opposed by retired general Otto Perez Molina of the Patriotic Party, a conservative group that annoys me by using a clenched fist, the worldwide symbol of the left for over a hundred years, as its logo. Despite overwhelming evidence of his direct involvement in one massacre and his suspected oversight of many others, he not only denies responsibility, but claims, contrary to all nonpolitical investigators, that such things never occurred. A graduate of the U.S.’s School of the Americas, he headed the training program for the elite commandos called “kaibiles” blamed for most of the torture and killing of civilians. Runner-up in the last election, he is the first military man to advance to this point in national politics since the end of the armed conflict. Much of his campaign was based on promises to be “tough on crime” in a country suffering increasing operations by Mexican and Colombian narcotraffickers. 
By nine in the evening Perez Molina had been declared the winner. Fireworks went off for several hours, resuming at about 4:30 in the morning, but the celebration seemed perfunctory. The pattern of the presidency being won by the second-place finisher from the previous election had held true once again. This has been the case since the restoration of the forms of democracy in 1986. It is as though the populace is dramatically enacting the unfortunate fact that the mainstream parties are much the same, and the selection of a winner matters only to the factions of the ruling class. No one speaks for the people.
My cynicism must have been shared by a good number of Guatemalans. We saw billboards from the university-based Movimiento de Integración.  Some read “Politicians are turds. We’re fed up.” Others list the names of the presidents in modern times, saying they “have robbed us of nine hundred million quetzals. We’re fed up.” Yet others read: “Seven presidents have held office, seven have been locked up. If you want another jailbird, vote for a politician.” 
1. In Puerto Barrios we saw SUVs and pickups with darkly tinted windows. We were told, “Everyone knows who they are, but no one will say anything. That car will never be stopped, so matter what its driver does.” While such violent and powerful organizations are clearly destructive, they also gain favor by the heaps of money they toss around in otherwise poor areas.
2. I have since read that this organization erected five hundred such signs.
3. “Los politicos son una mierda. Ya estamos hartos.” “Vinicio Cerezo, Serrano Elías, Ramiro de León Carpio, Álvaro Arzú, Alfonso Portillo, Oscar Berger y Álvaro Colom nos han robado Q900 millones. Estamos hartos.” “Siete presidentes hemos tenido, siete trabadas nos han metido. Si quiere otra trabada vote por los politicos.”