Wet, cold police turn blind eye to looters

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The Independent Online
"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."