Wet, cold police turn blind eye to looters

"WE'RE HUNGRY. We're thirsty, we're desperate. No-one even gave us any water." The rain-drenched, middle-aged woman, hauling a potato sack bulging with bags of rice, soap and bottled water, was screaming at an obviously frightened young policeman who half-heartedly tried to stop her running from a looted supermarket.

She was one of thousands of men, women and children, the survivors of Monday's earthquake, who lost their patience with a lack of aid and prized open the metal shutters of dozens of supermarkets and stripped them bare. So great was the hunger and desperation that it became the survival of the fittest, as men wrested stolen food, medicine or toilet paper from women. Outside one supermarket, a young man and his wheelchair were knocked over. He was trampled for a couple of minutes before being righted. Some women bartered in stolen goods. "Is that flour? I'll give you my rice for that," shouted one amid the confusion.

Police reinforcements fired their G-3 automatic rifles into the air to disperse the looters who retaliated by throwing bricks and other earthquake rubble, but eventually gave up.

Stunned by the turn of events, Colombia's president Andres Pastrana moved his government to Armenia - formerly known as La Milagrosa (the Miracle City) because of its picturesque setting - but now 70 per cent in ruins without water, electricity or communications. The mayor says the entire city centre - an area bigger than London's West End, with banks, trendy shops and restaurants - may have to be demolished.

Mr Pastrana also called in 2,000 more police and military police to restore order. The local police had already been demoralised by losing their headquarters and around 20 colleagues in the quake. They, too, were wet and hungry. Mr Pastrana was said to be considering bringing in troops hardened in battle with leftist guerrillas and ruthless cocaine gangs.

The numbers of desperate citizens of this city, in what is known as Colombia's eje cafetero (coffee hub) because of its world-renowned crop, increased as news spread that food was available. Thousands flocked to the area on foot, in cars, on bicycles, farm lorries or tractors, causing a chaotic traffic jam in torrential rain. The police, many from the same working-class Santander barrio of the city, eventually gave up. "In the end, it just seemed better to let them get on with it," said assistant police chief Dagoberto Garcia. "There's been too much death here already. We don't want to cause any more."

Despite a dusk-to-dawn curfew, looters moved from basic essentials to furniture and electronic goods. Small shopkeepers, wearing white armbands to recognise each other, set up vigilante groups to protect their wares. Police said vandals, wielding guns or machetes, were robbing the looters.

In the town of Pereira, the sound of police sirens continued throughout yesterday as looting spread in the badly-hit working class city centre.

Price rises have added to the frustration of victims with the unscrupulous charging four times the regular price for rice and sugar. Nor could they understand why tons of overseas aid -food, medicine and blankets - were piling up at Armenia's tiny airfield while nothing appeared to be reaching them.

The Red Cross said the death toll was now just short of 900 but likely to rise several-fold since only 20 per cent of rubble had so far been cleared.

The scene in the "coliseum," or sports arena, of the University of Quindio (the province of which Armenia is the capital) was horrific. Several hundred decomposing bodies lay scattered, face-up, across the basketball court in rag doll positions while relatives sought for loved-ones, amid a stench far worse than a long-uncleared rubbish dump.

Several dozen bodies were dug out of the rubble yesterday, emerging bloated and covered in dust. Despite the virtual non-stop rain, reducing the chance of survivors, many relatives did not give up hope. Spirits were lifted on Wednesday when two teenage boys, 16-year-old Daniel Acevedo and 13-year-old Jeison Lopez, were hauled from rubble almost 48 hours after the quake. Daniel said he had survived by singing hymns to himself, keeping his head warm in a crash helmet that ended up beside him and drinking his own urine using his hands as a cup.

In a park where thousands of refugees are sleeping on sodden grass with only plastic sheets as their roofs, there were moving scenes yesterday as hundreds lined up in single file to get messages to relatives elsewhere in Colombia or abroad.

Each were given 10 seconds by the local TV channel Telecafe which is also transmitted "live" to areas of the United States where many Colombians live.

Men, women and children tried to put on a brave face but many broke down as one after another gave a similar message: "Mum and dad, this is just to let you know that I'm fine. I'm in good health and still trust in God. I have nowhere to live because he house fell down into the street but I'll be alright."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
Life and Style
life + style
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor