Chile earthquake: 'Looters run wild'? Not quite.

News media from around the world have highlighted looting in the wake of the 8.8 Chile earthquake, but how bad is it really? Chileans say things are tense in some areas, but under control.

Eliseo Fernandez/REUTERS
Workers inspect a local circus Monday that was destroyed by the waves generated by Chile's earthquake. Chile's government has dispatched 10,000 troops to quell looting, but many Chileans say that fears of looting are overblown.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

In the aftermath of Saturday's massive 8.8 Chile earthquake, news media around the world have reported on the pillaging of supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, and banks. They have described Chileans fighting one another over dwindling resources. One headline reads: “Looters run wild.”

Many Chileans, however, say that the media is overplaying a sense of desperation.

While the situation is grave – with residents in hard-hit towns relaying their fears of dwindling supplies and the mayor in the city closest to the epicenter warning of “social tensions” – Chileans say things are under control.

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

“I do not believe the media is prepared, because they are making a soap opera out of this. They are helping to create more panic,” says Jose Gill, a volunteer for A Roof for My Country, a group in Chile that helps build shelter for those in need. “The media is preoccupied over what sells.”

Some looting, yes ...

As in almost any catastrophe, there has been some looting. Images have captured people ransacking supermarkets in the city of Concepcion. There have been similar reports in Santiago.

“We need food for the population. We are without supplies, and if we don’t resolve that we are going to have serious security problems during the night,” Concepcion Mayor Jacqueline van Rysselberghe was quoted as saying.

Chilean media reported the arrest of dozens of people in the country, and some voiced frustration over the slow pace of aid distribution.

One woman, in the city of Talca, which was also hard hit by the earthquake, told a reporter that more security is needed. “We don't have water or anything. No one has appeared with help and we need more police to keep order," she told Reuters Sunday. "There are many people here who are robbing.”

... but troops are keeping order

The Chilean government has deployed 10,000 soldiers into the most affected areas to help keep order and distribute aid. It also imposed a temporary curfew for the worst-hit areas, and opened up to foreign aid. President Michelle Bachelet said Sunday that deliveries of food, water, and shelter for those left homeless would be arriving imminently.

Many voiced relief that the government sent in troops to patrol streets and oversee aid distribution. “The chaos was too much … The tough ones were taking all of the food, and stealing electronics, things that had nothing to do with need. So it’s good to put the military in charge of [the most affected areas],” says Ricardo Valenzuela, a resident of Santiago.

Preventive measures

Yet the move to dispatch troops is seen more as a preventive measure, than a reaction to a situation out of hand.

“Whenever you have looting, such as [during] Hurricane Katrina, there is a perception that the government has lost control,” says Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and professor at New York University. For the most part, he says, “this is not looting of people hungry and in need of water… This is not a hungry crowd that wants to feed itself. It was partly looting of people taking advantage [of the situation]. My perception is that the situation is much more under control than the media here presents it.”

On Monday, the nation still struggled to reach some of the outlying areas, with infrastructure making passage impossible in some parts of the country. Rescue crews worked without stop to save those still under rubble.

Mr. Navia says that the government delayed deploying the military by a day, in part because initial assessments showed a situation under control. The delay also speaks to the nation’s military past under right-wing strongman Augusto Pinochet. “There was a dictatorship shadow that prevented [the government] from getting the military on the streets. Normally you’d send the Army out to patrol and [maintain] order.”

By Sunday, however, the death toll had doubled to more than 700 and many remote towns were obviously desperate for help.

Now that troops are on the streets, he expects the situation to remain under control.

A sense of calm was already the prevailing mood in most of Santiago, which was not hit as hard by the earthquake but still suffered its share of destruction, and is as traumatized as the rest of the nation.

Still, Carmen Medina, whose house was destroyed in Santiago, says she worries about security, especially about people ransacking the belongings left in her home. “One always looks at other countries, [in continents] such as Africa, and says ‘how terrible.’ But now we are living this,” she says. “We are experiencing delinquency. [We need to be] protecting our own homes and the things we have.”

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

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