Deadly violence mars Argentine democracy celebrations
By Michael Warren, AP
December 12, 2013, 12:05 am TWN
BUENOS AIRES--Many Argentines armed and barricaded themselves in their homes and stores in fear of looting mobs Tuesday as the nation's celebration of 30 years of uninterrupted democracy was marred by police strikes for higher pay.
Politicians struggled to assert their authority over security forces even as they agreed to salary increases so steep that many provinces won't be able to pay their debts at month's end, adding stress to an economy already suffering from 25 percent inflation.
President Cristina Fernandez sought to contain the crisis Tuesday night, charging that anti-democratic elements were trying to undo Argentina's hard-won gains. “We must condemn the extortion of those who carry arms to defend society,” she declared.
The speech was her first response to a weeklong series of provincial police strikes. As officers abandoned their posts, and in some cases allegedly encouraged violence to pressure authorities, many of Argentina's 23 provinces have endured long nights of chaos as roving groups smashed through storefronts and fought over the merchandise inside.
Hospital and political authorities said at least seven people had been killed, including a police officer in northern Chaco province who was struck by a bullet below his protective vest Tuesday and a store owner whose burned body was found last week in his looted and torched market in Buenos Aires province.
The others allegedly died while looting. One young man was electrocuted while stealing from an appliance store in a rainstorm. Another fell off a motorcycle while carting off a television. A third died in a fistfight over stolen goods inside a ruined store.
Hundreds have been injured and thousands of businesses damaged in the scattered violence. While most officers were back at work after securing new deals, police uprisings continued Tuesday in several cities. Commerce has been shut down in many places, and even some public hospitals have turned away non-emergency patients for fear of being looted.
With consumer prices soaring, Argentines are accustomed to annual labor protests in which workers threaten chaos if they don't get their way. But strikes by armed police are more ominous in a country where social chaos, police crackdowns and spiraling violence ushered in the 1976 military coup and a world-record debt default in 2001.
“This was executed and planned with surgical precision,” Fernandez said in her speech marking the end of the last military junta. She claimed many people became unwitting instruments of extortion by police who “liberated” areas where looting could happen.