Chilean Earthquake: Locals Stand Guard with Guns

Locals in Concepcion hunker down with guns and hand-held radios, while mobs run free and the military tries to gain traction.
By Jimmy Langman — Special to GlobalPost
Published: March 3, 2010 06:53 ETCONCEPCION, Chile – About 3,000 Chilean military troops now have a tight hold on the center of Chile’s second-largest city, located 70 miles from the epicenter of Saturday’s earthquake that devastated much of central Chile.

But food, water and medical supplies are still slow to arrive in Concepcion. And concern about one of the world’s worst earthquakes in a century quickly shifted to an even greater worry about the mass of fellow residents breaking into shops left and right.

Soon after the earthquake, many of the city’s residents began to pour onto the streets. Eventually, hundreds of poor residents in search of food broke into supermarkets on Sunday. But that soon swelled into mobs ransacking whatever they could get their hands on in the city.

“The social earthquake that has happened here in recent days has been worse [than the earthquake],” said Thomas Forende, 45, who manages a milk cooperative in the city.

Slideshow: scenes of destruction

Slideshow: day three of Chile quake

On Sunday evening around 6 p.m., a giant Lider supermarket on the corner of Prat and Maipu streets was targeted. The police at first reluctantly let some looters take away food, but when some started lugging out widescreen television sets, even laundry machines, the police stepped in with tear gas and water cannons.

Angelea Villalobos, 41, witnessed the ransacking of the Lider. As she sits amid the rubble of her 1932 home, which splattered into thousands of pieces, a coffee pot simmers over a small fire. She explains that her family has enough food to hold out for two or three more days.

Villalobos says she and her neighbors on Maipu Street remain vigilant 24 hours a day behind makeshift fences set up on each entrance to their street to keep the looters at bay. Last night, she heard bullets.

“Till yesterday, this was a lawless no man’s land,” said Villalobos.

Jose Gonzalez, 46, chief of a gas distribution service in Concepcion, shares a similar view. He and dozens of neighbors coordinate with hand-held radios and wield guns, knives and thick wooden sticks to protect their middle-class Valle Noble community about 10 minutes outside of town.

Across the street from Valle Noble, with its neat, modern homes, they watched in horror as mobs plundered a gas station and a Ripley department store warehouse. “All day, people did not take food away from Ripley, rather televisions, clothes, everything they could get their hands on. This is just thievery,” said Gonzalez.

Others like Caroline Poblete, 34, a housewife with two children, complain about the slow response from Chile’s government. “I did not support General Augusto Pinochet, but right now we could use a Pinochet,” she says in disgust.

As one Chilean news television presenter said: “Chileans in earthquake areas are asking why the press can arrive so quick and not the government.”

In a tactic reminiscent of the Pinochet era, the government has declared martial law to halt the looting. From 8 p.m. Monday to noon Tuesday, residents were prohibited from walking or driving the streets. Tuesday, martial law commenced even earlier, at 6 p.m.

Troops toting large rifles man the city’s most important and busiest steets and stand guard in front of gas stations.

Basic services are still absent in almost the entire city.

Many residents ride the streets on bicycles as they can not re-fuel their automobiles. Water service has been restored to only a few homes in the city center. Buses are arriving carrying worried family members. And Tuesday newspapers arrived for the first time since the earthquake hit, informing the isolated city that hadn’t had access to the outside world since early Saturday morning.

“Have you heard what has happened to the town of Constitution? How is Santiago faring after the earthquake?” asks Alex Canete, a social worker, who said he was going to help the regional government deliver food staples such sugar, flour, rice, salt, milk and water to residents street by street.

In one stunning story, as soon as Cristina Perez, 57, opened the front door of her century-old home on 729 Colo Colo St. in the center of Concepcion immediately after the earthquake struck, the entire brick and mortar facade pancaked to the ground in front of her creating a mountain of rubble.

The entire contents of the home and the stores she rents out on her first floor are laid bare to everyone. An angry Perez yells at onlookers to ¨go away¨ as she seeks to recover her belongings. Perez was born there, and the home has been in their family for more than 100 years.

The Sanhuez family saw the spine of the four-story apartment building just one block from the Bio Bio River wilt under the power of the 8.8-magnitude quake. With continuing aftershocks rocking the city, threats of a tsunami, a crime wave and no lights or water, they have huddled their brothers, wives and children and relocated to a roadside lot about 15 minutes outside Concepcion.

In a few more days their food will run out, but what they fear even more than hunger is going back.

Originally appeared March 3, 2010