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10 Dead as Argentine Food Riots Spread : 1,600 Looters Detained as Explosion of Unrest Affects 12 Cities

Times Staff Writer

Food riots spread to more than a dozen Argentine cities and towns Tuesday, engulfing the vast industrial belt around Buenos Aires and leaving at least 10 dead in an explosion of anger over hyperinflation.

Five bombs went off in the capital, causing little damage but further jangling nerves as President Raul Alfonsin’s lame-duck government groped to rein in the chaotic economy and restore order.

More than 1,600 looters were detained under state-of-siege powers imposed Monday night, including 1,000 in Rosario, Argentina’s second-largest city, about 165 miles northwest of the capital, authorities said.

Hundreds of supermarkets and other stores were ransacked in working-class suburbs and squatter towns, mainly around Buenos Aires and Rosario, and hundreds of looters were injured in running battles with police firing handguns, rubber bullets and tear-gas grenades.

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The pillaging tested Alfonsin’s resolve to see his term through its December finish and thus preside over the first constitutional transition of power from one party to another in Argentina’s history. The largest trade union confederation joined a range of sectors in demanding that Alfonsin step down and allow the Peronist president-elect, Carlos Saul Menem, to assume office early.

Menem, the La Rioja province governor who won a landslide victory May 14, appealed for calm and made clear he was in no hurry to step in. “We are all worried by this situation, and I ask understanding and support from the people,” he said.

The government insisted that ultra-left agitators were stirring up the poor to break into shops and steal goods, including appliances and furniture, as well as food. But leftist politicians and many residents themselves scoffed at that explanation as an excuse to deflect attention from the desperation and hunger brought on by the government’s repeated economic failures, culminating in an unprecedented burst of inflation--about 70% for the month of May alone.

Police officer Jorge Garcia, who was in charge of 30 to 40 officers guarding a large supermarket barricaded with upturned chairs and pallets, said: “It’s a mix of reasons. There are needs, but it is also organized. If there was no need, the agitators wouldn’t have fertile ground to sow problems.”

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The death toll rose to six in Rosario, including a store owner who shot himself as looters ransacked his shelves. Severe rioting had broken out before dawn Monday and it resumed Tuesday. The looting spread to nearby Villa Gobernador Galvez, where Mayor Santos Mauro said, “They left practically nothing, they stripped everything--supermarkets, stores, shoe shops.”

In greater Buenos Aires, home to one-third of the nation’s 31 million people, at least 11 towns suffered waves of sackings.

San Miguel, a city of about 300,000 people northwest of the capital, counted four dead as poor residents burst out of their squatter and working-class neighborhoods and ransacked and destroyed shops along a half-mile-long avenue. Military helicopters clattered overhead and police vans roamed the street, firing in the air and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at groups of looters.

Police traded fire with a young man and captured him in an alley, dragging him away to a squad car, one of several reported cases of gunfights between civilians and police in different clashes.

The principal target in more than 18 hours of looting in the area was a wholesale food warehouse, in which the crowd stripped nearly bare dozens of racks full of food. Police fired tear gas into the warehouse, driving out the looters, who left a trail of broken jars of olives, mayonnaise, noodles and grape juice.

Farther down the street, the mobs smashed windows and tore open the metal shutters of small stores selling products ranging from furniture to food. Although police reinforcements were brought in from several towns, the patrols took little action, reluctant to cause further casualties.

“There is much hunger here, the people are earning the equivalent of $18 to $20 a month,” said a civil defense worker who was tending to the wounded. “They are mostly mothers with children. They didn’t throw anything. They want sugar and milk, some are even asking the police to let them pass.”

Increase in Minimum Wage

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The government announced a 117% increase in the minimum wage Tuesday, to 8,700 australs a month; that equalled only about $43 because of the collapse of the austral against the dollar since February. However, increasing numbers of workers complained their pay is below the minimum wage. Stella Maris de Varias, a 38-year-old mother of six from the Barrio San Isidro housing project in suburban Buenos Aires, said her husband, a metal shop worker, earned 20 australs an hour, or $16 a month.

The government also imposed ceiling prices for bread, sugar and flour that are below the current selling prices.

In a new program of monitoring price increases, government inspectors ordered seven major companies to close for 24 hours for overcharging.

Yet it was unclear whether such measures would calm widespread anger over lost buying power and the emergence of real hunger in Argentina, a major beef and grain exporter.

Mercedes Carmen Herrera, standing outside a supermarket in San Miguel that had been sacked Monday, said she worked as a maid for 100 australs--about 50 cents--for four hours’ work. Another woman shouted over her shoulder: “She works four hours to buy a two-pound bag of sugar!”

Stores throughout greater Buenos Aires and Rosario closed two hours early. Food markets rationed purchases to no more than two of any item.

With banks limiting withdrawals to just over $100 a person per week, many Argentines are desperately low on cash and many don’t know how they will pay their employees, rent and other end-of-the-month accounts. Currency exchange houses have remained closed because of a lack of australs.


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