Guatemala’s first lady divorces "for her country"

By Mike McDonald

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Most loving couples hope their marriage will last “until death us do part”. But for Guatemala’s first lady, politics got there first.

Sandra Torres tearily announced on Thursday she had divorced her husband President Alvaro Colom for the sake of the nation, thereby hoping to skirt a law in Guatemala that blocks the president’s relatives from running for office.

A constitutional clause dating from Guatemala’s transition to democracy in the mid-1980s after decades of autocratic rule prevents family members of the president from taking power.

But Torres, who was already a divorcee, hopes to step into Colom’s shoes after an election later this year.

An ambitious politician who many analysts say wields significant power behind the scenes in Colom’s center-left National Union of Hope (UNE) party, Torres said she was putting the Guatemalan people before her own personal happiness.

“I am getting a divorce from my husband, but I am getting married to the people,” the 51-year-old Torres said at a news conference, fighting back tears. She called the decision, which will force the first couple to live apart, “very difficult.”

“I am not going to be the first or the last woman who decides to get a divorce, but I am the only woman to get a divorce for her country,” added Torres, Colom’s third wife.

The couple quietly filed for divorce by mutual consent in a family court on March 11 but the news was not made public until this week. The couple refused to say whether they would remarry later and declined to talk about their living arrangements.

While the constitution explicitly bans blood relatives of the president and vice president from running for office, it is unclear what the rule is on ex-spouses and the electoral court will have to decide if Torres will be allowed to run.

Opposition politicians blasted the move, with the leading right-wing Patriot Party (PP) calling it “electoral fraud.”

PP candidate Otto Perez Molina, an ex-general who commanded troops at the height of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, is leading polls ahead of the first round of voting in September.

Perez Molina lost to Colom in 2007 and is running again on a platform of fighting crime in the small Central American nation which is renowned for its ecological diversity but also has one of the highest murder rates in the western hemisphere.

The constitution bans former dictators and religious figures from running for president and does not allow re-election, possibly raising questions about the candidacies of other figures in the wide cast of presidential hopefuls.

Zury Rios, the daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, is eyeing a bid, as are evangelical preacher Harold Caballeros and former President Alvaro Arzu.

Rights activists accuse Zury’s father of masterminding some of the most brutal government-backed massacres in the 1960-1996 conflict between security forces and leftist guerrillas.

(Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Kieran Murray)

Guatemala’s first lady divorces "for her country"