Chile sends army into post-quake chaos

The Chilean army marched into this wrecked city Tuesday, rounding up looters and receiving the applause of besieged survivors of the weekend’s massive earthquake.

Despite Chile’s tortured history with the military, the armed forces now are being looked at by many here as their savior -- a necessary, if slow-in-coming, show of force in the face of utter disaster and deteriorating security.

“They should have done this a long time ago,” civil engineer Carlos Aguilar, 42, said as soldiers armed with M-16s pulled a group of young thieves from a disheveled Cruz Verde pharmacy and loaded them into the back of a van. The crowd that gathered applauded and shouted words of thanks. “If they need to, they should shoot to kill,” Aguilar added, echoing the sentiments of numerous people in Concepcion.

Marlene Elizabeth Franco, a 39-year-old mother of three, said roving bands of vandals had been terrorizing neighborhoods in the aftermath of the magnitude 8.8 quake that roared through central and southern Chile before dawn Saturday, killing at least 800 people.

“It feels like we are living in a war zone,” she said through tears, recounting the dark, sleepless nights in which her husband and others stand guard, armed with sticks and clubs against “thieves and vandals with pistols.”

“I believe in democracy,” she continued, “but right now we have complete disorder. It is important to have a police and army presence on the streets.”

A pall of acrid smoke hung over Concepcion on Tuesday after vandals torched a downtown shopping center on Monday -- once they’d finished clearing it of goods. Looting here in Chile’s second-largest city, with a population of more than 889,000 -- combined with mounting protests over the lack of food, water and aid -- alarmed the government of President Michelle Bachelet and prompted authorities to prolong an overnight curfew to noon Tuesday.

“Our concern is to give security and calm to the population,” Bachelet said Tuesday after announcing that nearly 14,000 army and navy troops had been deployed throughout quake-devastated coastal communities. “We understand perfectly the anguish and overwhelming needs of the people, but we know well that the criminal actions of small groups of people are provoking enormous physical damage . . . and will not be tolerated.”

Bachelet spoke shortly before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stopped off in Santiago, the capital, for a brief visit as part of a pre-scheduled five-nation Latin America tour.

Bachelet said 50 military flights with supplies were headed to the region Tuesday. But they were not immediately in evidence. Most of the zone remained without electricity or running water, with food and fuel acutely scarce. In places where staples such as bread were available, residents complained of soaring prices.

Within the first 48 hours of the temblor, one of the strongest recorded, Bachelet declared a state of emergency in the hardest-hit regions, putting them under military control, deploying troops and instituting a curfew. For some Chileans, the extreme measures were a throwback to the darkest moments of their national history.

It was the first time such measures had been taken in the two decades since democracy was restored to Chile, after 17 years of brutal military dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Thus far, however, reaction to the use of the military has been positive, in part because the enormous scope of destruction and recovery operations far exceeds what Chilean police and civilian forces are capable of handling on their own. In fact, Bachelet met with some criticism for responding slowly, having initially declared international help was not necessary and failing to deploy the army on the first day.

Analysts said they did not see the emergency decrees as a threat to Chile’s hard-fought democracy. “This emergency is in no way comparable to anything else in the history of Chile,” political scientist Guillermo Holzmann said. However, he cautioned that use of the military must remain a temporary measure authorized under the constitution in times of crisis.

“The important thing is that the military be seen as a resource and not a permanent nor complete solution,” he said.

Here in Concepcion, long lines formed at one city office that was distributing water. Many residents, however, simply took pots and pans to nearby rivers and lakes, scooping up dirty water to use in cooking and bathing.

Survivors had begun to set up self-defense squads in hopes, they said, of protecting their neighborhoods. They erected barricades on their streets, piled high with wood, metal and other debris to block access. Some built bonfires.

Ricardo Monsalve, 19, with a large earring in each ear, said he and his comrades communicate with whistles to warn one another of impending danger. He held a handmade spear.

“We’re here to take back our city,” he said.

Men with clubs and axes were patrolling Villa Rene Schneider, a neighborhood named for a native son who served as Chilean army commander in chief until he was killed in 1970 because he stood in the way of Pinochet’s eventual coup.

“They should have sent the military here on the first day of the earthquake,” said Luis Rodriguez, 34. “What happened was that the city descended into total chaos, so we had to fight for ourselves.”

Outside the nearby Super 10 grocery store, already picked nearly clean, a crowd gathered with the apparent intention of seizing whatever goods were left.

Soldiers arrived, firing shots into the air to scatter the would-be looters.

“Please don’t go in, looting is not legal,” shouted a military commander who declined to give his name. “We’ll arrest anybody who loots.”

Those in the crowd shouted back, saying they needed help, medicine, food for their children.

“The help is coming,” the officer insisted. “The airplanes are coming in right now with food, they’ll be in Concepcion shortly, but please, no looting -- we’re here to maintain order.”

Rodrigo Pino, a 42-year-old architect with wire-rim glasses, summed up the reason that public support for the army was so high, at least for now.

“I support democracy 100%,” he said. “But now is not the time to talk about democracy. Now is the time to talk about control of gangs.”


Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City and special correspondent Claudia Lagos in Santiago contributed to this report.