Otto Pérez Molina wins Innovative Leader of the Year at Bravo Business Awards (Latin Trade)

Otto Pérez Molina isn’t one to hang about. The day after taking the country’s reins he ordered the army to join the fight against the drug cartels that had invaded the region.

The retired general came to power on the promise of increasing security by governing Guatemala with a mano dura, an iron fist, so his enthusiasm for utilizing the military came of little surprise to a nation still nursing its civil war scars.

A few weeks later he burst onto the international stage proposing the legalization of drugs and the world sat up and took notice. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, he told global leaders that the war on drugs had failed and controversially called for an alternative, rallying Latin American leaders to join him and for Europe and the United States to take responsibility for their role in the region’s ongoing conflict.

A soldier to the core, Pérez Molina graduated from the country’s National Military Academy in 1973, completed a Masters in International Relations at a private Guatemalan university and went on to pursue further studies at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington D.C.

His direct, disciplined and goal-orientated style of governance is symptomatic of his previous positions as Inspector-General, a member of Guatemala’s Special Forces, the Kaibiles, and Director of Military Intelligence. His occupancy of the latter still divides the nation: some say his representation of the military during peace talks helped end the country’s 36-year civil war, while others accuse him of committing human rights abuses at the height of the conflict – something which he denies.

Pérez Molina retired from active military duty in 2000 and founded the political party, Partido Patriota, the following year. After an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2007, he reappeared four years later and became the first military official to be elected to the presidency since the country’s return to democratic elections in 1986. 

It seemed as though the former army general had inherited a nation on its knees. The word on voters’ lips was security and he promised to deliver: implementing robust measures to curb violence and organized crime and changing the country’s fiscal system to reduce tax avoidance.

Although there were brief indicators that violence was starting to reduce during his first 12 months in power, the figures for 2013 have not been so positive. As they have fallen, so too has the president’s approval rating: last year it remained at around 70 percent (the highest ever achieved in the last four governments), but it now lies at 50.

However, for the workaholic who calls Sunday the first day of the working week, and Saturday the last, there is no time to grow disheartened. He sees Guatemala’s potential and is determined for the country to fulfill it, become more competitive and offer more formal employment.

The intense pace at which his government works is reflected by the record number of reforms it has pushed through. Many hope the 46 changes to employment law and judicial security will improve Guatemala’s ranking by between 10 and 20 places in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. Last year it improved five places and foreign investment grew by 25 percent; analysts are predicting an additional 15 percent growth this year.

Alongside plans to improve infrastructure and boost tourism, the government has also increased the minimum wage by 5 percent and invested nearly $17 million in a social program called Hambre Cero designed to reduce chronic malnutrition.

The former army general came to power vowing to rid Guatemala of hunger and violence. Half way into his four year term and, although he has accomplished many things, his initial promises still remain out of reach. However, it has been said that when Otto Pérez Molina sets his mind to something he achieves it.


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