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Colombia: From tragedy to chaos

THERE ARE three things you could not easily forget about 50-year- old Colombian shoe salesman Saul Hernandez. First is the way he unsheathes his 30in machete to show how he would deal with looters. Second is the fact that his home is a mattress from which he can touch all the sheets of black plastic that serve as his walls and roof. Third is that he puts four paper cups outside in the rain to gather water to drink.

Saul is one of some 200,000 people left homeless after last week's massive earthquake in the heart of Colombia's coffee-growing region. His new "home" reflects the complete lack of direct assistance for the victims. As of yesterday, not even a single tent had been handed out to the victims, most of whom are living under plastic awnings held up by bamboo.

His rain-gathering cups reflect the fact that no one has come by to give him drinking water or food, in a ruined city where water, electricity and communications have been cut off since the quake. His banana-cutting machete reflects the fact that hunger has driven many residents of Armenia to looting and violence, even though President Andres Pastrana sent in troops on Thursday.

As well as the hungry victims, common bandits began roaming the streets at night, despite a military curfew, robbing even the ruins of earthquake victims' homes. Within a week, tragedy turned to chaos and anarchy in Colombia's coffee heartland. And it could have repercussions nationwide and beyond. Mr Pastrana easily won last year's elections and was on something of a roll after smoothing relations with the US and starting peace talks with Marxist guerrillas.

Whether or not they can impose law and order after the earthquake could affect both Mr Pastrana and the military. Failure to do so could push more Colombians to the side of the Marxist rebels, who already control close to half of Colombia's territory and who run alternative governments in many areas, where the poor see them as the better option to what they perceive as an uncaring central government.

In the end, it may be Mr Pastrana and all the politicians who suffer, rather than the military. The fact that the troops sent in to prevent looting ended up virtually supporting the looters added to the military's popularity but appeared to isolate the president.

Recognising the extent of the quake victims' hunger, soldiers either stood by or, in some cases, even lent a hand to people looting supermarkets and a Red Cross warehouse on Friday. Army officers admitted privately they were angered by the fact that several hundred tons of food and other international aid had arrived during the week but had been blocked at airports here and elsewhere by bureaucracy, lack of coordination and sheer incompetence.

Quake victims were angered last week at the failure to distribute food, medicine, clothes or even the plastic sheeting that has become the most coveted item here after a week of torrential rain. So bad was the rain that coffins placed into mass graves began floating and bumping into one another.

"Help us, please!" screamed the headline of Friday's daily newspaper, La Tarde, reporting on a mass exodus of victims from Armenia. With no other transport available, and fearing further quakes, residents packed themselves into cattle lorries to get out of town.

We found ourselves behind one lorry with dozens of faces peering at us through the bars. By the side of the road, we saw refugees on foot scramble to pick up a single orange tossed from a passing car.

This was not the heart of Africa. Those scrambling for the orange may well have been better off a week ago than those who tossed the fruit with the best of intentions. Armenia was a thriving city of coffee and cattle ranchers, a fashion-conscious middle class and coffee pickers who appeared relatively content to move around as migrant workers.

Perhaps the most lasting symbol of Armenia's destruction was the working- class hillside suburb of Brasilia. Not a single one of its 30 homes was left standing. In less than a minute, 300 homes ended up as a single mass of rubble and more than 300 people died. As of yesterday, there were believed to be more than 250 unrecovered bodies in the suburb.

The overall death toll for Colombia's coffee region was officially around 900 but it was expected to double or even triple as rubble was cleared.

On Thursday, a Brasilia resident, Gloria Costanza, led me to a hole in the rubble. "Olga's in there, under the table," she said. "But no one has come to move the rubble." It was three days after the quake and the stench suggested she was right. Her friend, 26-year-old Olga Hincapie, had been visiting her when the quake hit. "She loved London. She was in marketing and trained there. And she left a love behind there."

On Friday firemen arrived and pulled Olga's bloated, dust-covered body from the rubble. Knowing I worked for a London newspaper, Mrs Costanza said she knew who Olga's London love was but preferred not to say. "He'll probably never even know she died in the earthquake," she said.