Police strikes, mob rule testing Argentine cities

Associated Press
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An armed shopkeeper stands outside his business after his shop was looted in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina, Monday. Dec. 9, 2013, Outbreaks of looting have spread across Argentina as mobs take advantage of strikes by police demanding pay raises to match inflation. The central government has dispatched federal police to trouble spots and appealed for an end to what some officials are calling treason. (AP Photo/Julio Pantoja)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Mobs of looters are swarming into the streets of more cities across Argentina as police officers abandon their posts in spreading copycat strikes called to pressure provincial governors into raising their pay.

While officers gather outside negotiating sessions, people are smashing storefronts and hauling out anything they can carry, from mattresses to baby carriages to beer. One group of six men in rural Tucuman province hauled an entire freezer unit from an ice cream store and loaded it onto a donkey cart.

The death toll climbed to at least five by Monday — four suspected looters and one shop owner, who died inside his market after a mob set it on fire. Hundreds of people have been injured, and thousands of stores and homes robbed as the violence spread to at least 19 of Argentina's 23 provinces.

As a heat wave raised tempers in the southern hemisphere summer, banks, supermarkets, retail businesses and public transportation shut down in many cities. President Cristina Fernandez was silent, but her Cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, described the crimes as "treason" aimed at creating a sense of chaos on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Argentina's return to democracy.

Tuesday marks three decades since the swearing-in of President Raul Alfonsin ended Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, and a huge stage constructed in front of the government palace in Buenos Aires awaited a celebration to which all political parties were invited and expected to attend.

But the late president's son, legislator Ricardo Alfonsin, said the event should probably be postponed, "given what's happening in the country."

"I wonder if it wouldn't be healthier to take advantage of this formal act of memory and have the government and all political sectors commit together to defend the democracy and its institutions and work without speculations to ensure domestic peace," Alfonsin said.

The government sent federal security forces to hot spots, and prosecutors were put on alert to build criminal cases against looters. Justice Minister Julio Alak warned that people coordinating violence through social networks would be charged.

Many called the surge of strikes and violence "the Cordoba effect" — for the city where looting first erupted last week after provincial police refused to leave their quarters until their pay was raised to match inflation.

Gov. Jose de la Sota, a Fernandez rival, settled the walkout by effectively doubling police salaries to 12,000 pesos a month, or about $1,915 at the official exchange rate.

Officers elsewhere took notice and began staging their own walkouts, leaving citizens around the country undefended.

As the violence kept spreading Monday, even close presidential allies struggled to find money for police earning base salaries of less than 6,000 pesos ($960) a month.

Two people died in the initial violence in Cordoba. Firefighters then found a shopkeeper's body in the burned wreckage of his store in Almirante Brown, in Buenos Aires province, where Fernandez loyalist Gov. Daniel Scioli appealed for calm. The fourth and fifth victims were young men who were inside stores being looted in Entre Rios and Jujuy provinces.

Most Buenos Aires officers agreed to a raise that brought entry-level salaries up to what Scioli called a "fair and reasonable" 8,570 pesos ($1400), but some were still on strike Monday night holding out for 12,500 pesos.

With consumer prices rising at more than 25 percent a year, other public employees were aiming to get raises, too. Public health workers were preparing actions in a dozen provinces, their union said.