Former first lady Sandra Torres faces election block

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The Independent US

The former first lady Sandra Torres has had her presidential bid blocked by Guatemala's supreme electoral court on the grounds that her divorce from President Álvaro Colom is a sham.

The court has yet to make any formal announcement but a spokeswoman for Ms Torres’ centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE) party broke the news, saying the party would appeal against the ruling. Yet Ms Torres’s campaign may have already been dealt a fatal blow – she must register as a candidate for the September poll by July 12, giving her little time to resolve the legal hurdles her candidacy now faces.

Ms Torres, a 52-year-old businesswoman and policy expert, tearfully announced her divorce from Mr Colom last March in a bid to sidestep a constitutional clause preventing close family members of a sitting president running for the country’s highest office.

"Love for Guatemala is the reason why the president and I are putting the country’s interests ahead of our own," she said at the time. "I am neither the first nor the last woman to divorce in this country. But I am the first to divorce for Guatemala."

After more than 14 years together, including eight as husband and wife, the couple made their split legal in April. Ms Torres even moved out of the presidential palace to avoid any suggestion that she was using Mr Colom’s position to further her campaign.

Needless to say, the divorce has been hugely controversial in Guatemala, and not just because the constitutional restriction on presidential family succession is intended to help prevent a return to the country’s decades of autocratic and frequently brutal rule.

The conservative opposition Patriot Party described the move as “electoral fraud” and even Mr Colom, interviewed weeks before the divorce plans were made public, had admitted that such a stratagem would be “immoral”.

“She has been preparing to make a fool of the Guatemalan people for three years and three months [since Mr Colom took office as president],” proclaimed one congresswoman, Roxana Baldetti. “She has used the title of first lady to satiate her ambition for power and now she prefers to divorce in order to remain in power.”

Beyond her marital status, few in Guatemala seem to dispute the ability of Ms Torres, whose resume includes a stint as head of the government’s anti-poverty agency. The former first couple met in the 1990s as activists campaigning for a political movement founded by leftwing guerrillas during the democratic transition and she has often been viewed as the brains behind her husband’s political career.

There are no other strong figures in the UNE and, should Ms Torres’ disqualification stand, the party may be unable to field a viable presidential candidate. Yet it may make little difference. Currently, Ms Torres is polling around 15%, almost 30 points behind Patriot Party candidate Otto Pérez, a former army general who promises to crack down on the violent crimewave rocking the Central American nation.

Mr Colom, a 60-year old industrial engineer, came to power in 2008 amid promises to lift millions out of extreme poverty. However he has run into problems financing his social programmes while vicious gang warfare, often involving young Guatemalans deported from the US, has escalated, and the cocaine trade has tightened its grip.

Mexico’s drug cartels, which use the country as a staging post on the route to US markets, are now so powerful and have corrupted so many judges and police officers that analysts have begun to describe Guatemala as Latin America’s first “narco-state”.