SAN MIGUEL PATAPA, Guatemala -- Ismael Mancur was outside his family's hardware store, painting a sign for his senatorial campaign, when a man stepped from the shadows and shot him three times in the chest.
Police have not uncovered direct evidence Mancur's killing was politically motivated, but Mancur was one of 21 candidates and activists slain since Guatemala's election season began, according to groups monitoring events leading up to Nov. 9, the scheduled date for presidential, legislative and local elections. Fifteen others have survived gun or machete attacks.
Opposition parties and human rights organizations say the unusually high level of violence is linked to the controversial comeback effort of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, presidential candidate of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front party.
Political violence is nothing new in this nation of 14 million people. Elections in 1995 and 1999 were hardly peaceful, and Rios Montt was not a candidate -- he was barred from running for president then.
Dictatorships and violence- and fraud-plagued elections used to be the norm across much of Central America. Other nations in the region have achieved relative political stability in recent years, and for Guatemala, another election season with a high body count would be a severe setback in its struggle to put its bloody political history behind it.
This month, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish a commission to investigate the wave of political violence sweeping this country ahead of elections.
The Organization of American States has condemned the violence and the authorities' failure to capture any attackers.
Mancur was mayor of San Miguel Patapa, a working-class enclave on the outskirts of Guatemala City. He was not robbed by his killers, and his 24-year-old son, Durman, who was standing next to his father when he died, was unharmed.
The victim was active in the center-left National Union of Hope Party, and his son suspects the killer was a political rival from Rios Montt's party.
The Republican Front has also faced some violence, including threats against its supporters and gunshots fired at a mayoral candidate.
But the overwhelming majority of victims, including Mancur, belonged to opposition parties. They include a mayoral candidate for an alliance of former guerrilla groups who was kidnapped and beaten, an opposition activist shot to death by a Republican Front mayor as he tacked posters over the mayor's campaign signs, and another opposition activist who had his tongue cut out by muggers.
Rios Montt, 77, has gained ground in the polls but is still in third place. He trails front-runner Oscar Berger, a conservative ex-mayor of Guatemala City, and Alvaro Colom, a former interior secretary running with the National Union of Hope Party.
Tom Koenigs, head of the U.N. Mission to Guatemala, said Rios Montt's party "can very easily and very quickly create an atmosphere of fear" throughout the country.
"It's not so much the figure of the general himself that triggers violence as much as it is his very authoritarian party. They've already shown it is easy for them to mobilize a very steady ... very strong stream of antidemocratic demonstrators that can cripple the election process," said Koenigs, who helps monitor Guatemala's adherence to peace accords that ended the country's 1960-1996 civil war.
Rios Montt said he "didn't believe violence had increased" from past election years. But in an interview with The Associated Press, the retired brigadier-general ducked questions about who was behind the attacks.
"I think the passion to be the winner that many supporters have makes certain excesses inevitable," he said. "But I see that as normal."
The constitution prohibits those who participated in coups from seeking the presidency. Rios Montt seized power for 18 months after a 1982 military uprising,
In July, thousands of his supporters from across the country descended on Guatemala City, shutting down the capital and triggering chaos to protest a court order temporarily blocking Rios Montt's candidacy, After the protests, the country's highest court lifted the ban.
Koenigs said the chaos was a preview of what is to come.
"We feel that neither the opposition nor the government is prepared to accept a narrow defeat," he said. "There will be calls of fraud no matter who wins, and there could very well be an explosion of violence."