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Former general sworn in as Guatemala's president

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:18 AM EST, Sun January 15, 2012
Guatemala's new President Otto Perez and his wife Rosa Leal wave to supporters in Guatemala City, January 14, 2012.
Guatemala's new President Otto Perez and his wife Rosa Leal wave to supporters in Guatemala City, January 14, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina pledges to take a tough stand on crime
  • "Today, there is an air of hope," he says
  • Security issues loomed large during last year's campaign

(CNN) -- Retired army Gen. Otto Perez Molina was sworn in as Guatemala's president Saturday, pledging to take a tough stand on crime amid growing insecurity in the Central American nation.

"We have a country in crisis ... a nation very close to an economic and moral breakdown," he said. "Today, there is an air of hope."

Concerns about violence in Guatemala, which has worsened as Mexican drug cartels have stepped up operations in parts of the country, dominated last year's vote.

In a Vox Latina national survey in July, more than two-thirds of Guatemalans said violence was what concerned them most, far outpacing the combined totals for the economy, unemployment, poverty and lack of education.

The 61-year-old retired general pledged to bring a "mano dura" -- firm hand -- to Guatemala's highest office.

In a debate co-hosted by CNN en EspaƱol last year, Perez Molina called for "elite units of the army" to play a larger role in the nation's battle against gangs and drug cartels.

That approach -- and Perez Molina's high rank in the military during Guatemala's decades-long civil war -- worries human rights groups in Guatemala and abroad.

Concerns stem from the fact that the Guatemalan military committed multiple atrocities during the civil war, although Perez Molina has never been directly implicated in any of them.

Poverty is endemic in Guatemala, and the country has one of the worst crime rates in Latin America. Forty-three percent of children under 5 are chronically malnourished. And the murder rate in 2010 was 42 per 100,000 people -- one of the highest in the world.

Last year marked only the fourth time that Guatemala has held presidential elections since peace accords were signed in 1996, officially ending a civil war that devastated the country for 36 years. The conflict left more than 100,000 people dead and a million refugees.

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