October 27, 2015 / 7:19 PM / in 2 years

Guatemala's next leader eyes GPS tags on teachers, phones for kids

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Basking in the glory of a landslide in Guatemala’s presidential election, a former comedian with no government experience has some unorthodox policy plans: he will tag teachers with GPS trackers to ensure attendance and give poor kids smartphones.

Guatemala's President-elect Jimmy Morales speaks during a interview with Reuters, Guatemala City, October 26, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Jimmy Morales, 46, who sailed to victory with 67.5 percent of the vote on an anti-corruption platform, has said little about how he would curb gang violence or stem the flow of migrants to the United States, leaving a cloud of uncertainty over key issues.

“No other candidate has been called everything from a clown to a populist, but the smartphone is the least populist (idea) that there is,” Morales said in an interview on Monday, the day after his massive win. He will take office in January.

He plans to start with a pilot program in schools in 45 of Guatemala’s municipalities, and said it would cost the government nothing.

“We are going to give (the telephone companies) school and government walls to paint their brand logos on to compensate them,” said Morales, adding that he has been in contact with Telefonica, Tigo and Claro, some of the country’s largest telecom operators.

Morales rode a wave of voter outrage over a graft scandal that toppled former President Otto Perez last month, making the fight against corruption his central pledge and playing up his status as a political outsider.

But critics have called some of his policies eccentric and said his ideas on how to deal with some of Guatemala’s major challenges, such as violence and undocumented migration, are vague at best.

Morales said Central America’s largest economy should focus on bolstering criminal investigations to tackle lawlessness, instead of resorting to the military, allaying fears that his party’s ties to the armed forces could lead to a larger role for the military during his four-year term.   

Some founders and lawmakers of his center-right National Convergence Front (FCN) party are veterans of the military, which has raised concerns among many Guatemalans because the army massacred thousands of indigenous Maya in Guatemala’s bloody civil war from 1960 to 1996.

He said a Honduras-style militarization would not work for Guatemala, even though it has helped to stem gang bloodshed in its Central American neighbor, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates.

“We bet more on criminal investigations,” he said in the interview. “Investing in security doesn’t do anything if the justice system does not work.”

He floated the idea of assigning an engineering unit within the military, one of the country’s most opaque institutions, to build roads and bridges.

“Given there is no war, we don’t need combat,” Morales said, adding that the country could save money by using the military to build infrastructure.

He also described as “ridiculous” a 1 percent mining royalty that is paid to the government by foreign and domestic mining companies and said it was time to review the law.

“Investors may not be interested, but it may be that Guatemala is not interested in letting them take away its gold and nickel at very low prices,” said Morales, who quickly added, “I haven’t said ‘no’ to mining.” He declined to offer a time frame for such a review.

His stance against corruption is clear. He vows to audit institutions, increase the Attorney General’s budget and make government spending more transparent.

He has also promised to renew the mandate of a United Nations-backed body called the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, whose investigation into a multi-million dollar customs racket led to Perez’s downfall.

Editing by Simon Gardner, Toni Reinhold

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