Reflection in Argentina after deadly looting

Argentina is left soul searching after a wave of violent looting killed 13 as police went on strike for higher pay.

The government in Argentina has said it will next week approve pay rises to all the national police departments for which it is responsible. Meanwhile, the country’s provincial governments have either reached or are negotiating wage increases for their police forces.

The police are back on the streets and the looting, which spread across the country leaving at least thirteen people dead and hundreds of properties damaged, appears to be over.

The violence is contained but the problem is by no means over, with many Argentines frightened and confused by the rapid outbreak of lawlessness they have just witnessed and all sectors of society trying to understand who is responsible to prevent a repeat.
The blame game is in full swing.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner used Twitter to accuse the police of organising criminals to rob people and businesses, ‘instilling fear and terror.’

The Roman Catholic Church in Tucuman, one of the worst hit provinces, laid the blame firmly at the feet of the provincial government.

Father Meliton Chavez, the local priest responsible for social cohesion, said the provincial government must take responsibility for the inequalities that exist in one of the poorest regions of the country. He called on all sectors of society to work more closely together.

“We can reconstruct the society,” he said. “That’s why we’ve asked the government to take their responsibility and do what they can…to get more involved.”

The looting and rioting started in the central Argentine city of Cordoba at the beginning of the month when police there went on strike for higher pay. It spread rapidly to other towns and cities across Argentina as more provincial forces asked for wage rises. Many are paid a basic wage of about US$1,000 a month. With the streets unguarded, gangs began ransacking shops and supermarkets.

Handguns and baseball bats

In many places residents defended their neighbourhoods and shopkeepers their properties with handguns and baseball bats. Charred barricades still litter the streets as evidence of neighbourhood attempts to fend off the looters.

Hugo Pasuale owns La Rotonda, a food wholesale store that was the first in the northern city of Tucuman to be looted.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The alarm sounded and I went to investigate. There were kids of eight or nine taking food. One guy in a big four-by-four was coordinating things. I saw a kid in a private school uniform. Who does this? What kind of society allows this to happen?”

He repaired the damage and replaced stolen computers and cash registers and re-opened a couple of days after the looting. He has installed metal fencing behind the glass windows, a guard with a shot-gun sits by the front door and a bullet-hole remains in the glass as graphic testimony of what went on here.

Argentina is suffering high inflation and poverty and inequality are rife in many regions, especially in the interior of the country, away from the wealth of the capital, Buenos Aires.

That might go some way to explain the outbreak of looting, along with the opportunity created by police leaving the streets unguarded and the beginning of a long, hot summer.

Similar bouts of looting have broken out previously in Argentina, often in December at the start of the southern-hemisphere summer. In 2001 the violence was part of a wider political and economic crisis that led to the collapse of the then government.

A nervous calm now reigns over much of Argentina as the clean-up operation continues, the deaths are mourned and many try to understand just what went on here.

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