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Looters give up stolen goods in Chile

Police tactics pay off; president vows to prosecute

Girls played near a boat sitting in the middle of a street in Talcahuano, Chile, 10 days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck. Chileans were shocked by the looting that followed. Girls played near a boat sitting in the middle of a street in Talcahuano, Chile, 10 days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck. Chileans were shocked by the looting that followed. (Silvia Izquierdo/ Associated Press)
By Eva Vergara
Associated Press / March 8, 2010

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CONCEPCION, Chile - The police came with bullhorns to impoverished neighborhoods near the epicenter of Chile’s devastating earthquake, warning looters to return what they stole or face police raids.

And so they did, depositing everything from mattresses to refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. It took 35 truckloads to recover it all. Together with looted merchandise recovered by police, the material is worth nearly $2 million, officers said.

Touring a police gymnasium full of the recovered goods yesterday, President Michelle Bachelet called the looting one of “the other aftershocks of this tragic earthquake,’’ and vowed that those responsible would feel the full weight of the law: prison terms of two to five years.

“These are items that have nothing to do with survival - they reflect the moral damage of the people, some of whom came just to find things they could make money from,’’ she said, adding that the government also will prosecute anyone responsible for price speculation in the disaster area.

Thousands of quake survivors participated in the looting, which began only hours after the devastating earthquake and grew to include grandmothers and small children. Outnumbered police could only stand and watch, urging people to take only the food they needed, until soldiers arrived and restored order.

The looting hampered rescue and recovery efforts by distracting firefighters and police and deeply wounded the national pride of Chileans who yearn to be considered part of the first world.

Some excuse the looting as a natural result of the yawning wealth gap in Chile, where the poor are exposed to expensive consumer goods without any ability to buy them. The top 20 percent of wage earners make an average of $3,200 a month, compared with $340 a month for the bottom 20 percent, according to the national statistics institute.

Police Lieutenant Oscar Llanten credited the return of more than 950 items to teamwork between police and members of the looters’ own communities, who tipped off officers. The items included dozens of stoves, refrigerators, chairs and sofas, mattresses, bicycles, plastic toys, televisions and a copying machine.

A poll released yesterday suggested that 85 percent of Chileans want the looters prosecuted.

The poll published by the daily newspaper El Mercurio also found 72 percent believe the government responded late and inefficiently to reestablish order after the earthquake, and 48 percent believe it was because Bachelet did not want to end her term sending soldiers into the streets.

Sixty percent also believe aid delivery has been too slow and inefficient according to the survey of 600 adults in Santiago.

Bachelet did wait 33 hours after declaring a “state of catastrophe’’ before putting the military in charge of the disaster response, and significant aid didn’t reach some hard-hit communities for two or three days after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake.

But the government has since rolled out a massive effort, deploying planes, ships, helicopters, trucks, heavy equipment, and thousands of troops to deliver tons of aid from government storehouses, Chilean businesses, foreign governments, and aid groups.

Over the weekend, workers demolished a fallen 15-story apartment building in Concepcion that had come to symbolize the earthquake after officials said there was no more hope for finding survivors inside.

The only known remaining victim not recovered from the Alto Rio building was 21-year-old Jose Luis Leon, whose father on Saturday shouted desperately into holes in the concrete cut by rescuers. There was no answer.