As Argentine police stand down, looters step up

Police are striking for higher wages in 16 of Argentina's 23 provinces. Looting has followed, reflecting an unaddressed social volatility.

Bruno Cerimele/AP
An armed guard of a supermarket (l.) stands guard as people look at items left behind by looters after the store was looted in San Miguel de Tucuman, Argentina, Monday.

 Argentina has witnessed widespread looting in recent days as mobs seized on a security vacuum caused by police striking for salary hikes in at least 16 of the country’s 23 provinces.

The government often denounces attempts to destabilize it and says the violence – which has caused at least nine deaths, including six last night, according to local media – was an organized effort to generate chaos. But analysts say it reflects a deep-seated social volatility that the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has done little to address.
 
“It’s a sort of time bomb,” says Sergio Berensztein, a political analyst in Buenos Aires. “There’s a social tension, a marginalization that has been put on display here in a very clear manner.”

President Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, have held power for 10 consecutive years, during which one of the pillars of their political model has been “social inclusion.” They focus on poverty reduction, primarily through social benefits, including an emblematic child allowance that has more than 3.5 million beneficiaries in this nation of 41 million people.
 
The national statistics institute, which is widely discredited, put the urban poverty rate for the first semester of 2013 at 4.7 percent, a huge drop from the 47.8 percent a decade earlier when Argentina was recovering from economic collapse. But slums – home to hundreds of thousands of people across the country – have swelled in recent years and violent street crime is a major concern.
 
Observers say the Kirchners have failed in their one-dimensional approach to tackling poverty. “Despite state subsidies, there are sectors that are poor, that have not managed to get work, that do not respect the rule of law,” says Carlos F. De Angelis, a professor of sociology at the University of Buenos Aires. “Society is still fragile.”

Officers of at least nine police forces kept up their protests last night as the lawlessness continued in northern provinces. Five other cities saw sporadic looting over the weekend and federal troops were deployed in response.
 
The chaos followed a sit-in last week by officers in Córdoba, Argentina's second largest city with 1.3 million people, where the lack of police presence led to mass looting. Dozens of shops were ransacked and one man was fatally shot. Shop owners armed themselves with shotguns and set up barricades to protect their stores.
 
The situation in Córdoba was defused when officers accepted a minimum salary rise from 6,000 pesos to 8,000 pesos a month, or around $1,300 at the official exchange rate. Other forces have agreed to similar increases. The police demands have come amid rising inflation here, with the current annual rate estimated at 25 percent.
 
But it is the looting and disorder spurred by the police protests that have shocked Argentina. Norma Morandini, a senator representing Córdoba province, questioned Argentina’s moral code and institutional maturity as the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of its return to democracy today, following more than seven years of military rule.

“We must ask ourselves why after 30 years of democracy we are incapable of resolving conflicts without confrontation, without destruction, without a wrestle," Ms. Morandini said in a statement.

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