CONCEPCIÓN, Chile - The officers 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 2 to 5 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 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 restored order.
The looting hampered recovery efforts by distracting firefighters and police and deeply wounded the national pride of Chileans. "The damage it caused [to Chile's international image] is lamentable. Now they'll throw all of us in the same bag," said Juan Lagos Rosales, a construction worker forced to sleep in a tent with his wife and infant daughter outside their fallen house.
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.
When the earthquake shattered store windows, the temptation was too great, said Luis Figueroa Vinet, a deacon at Concepción's main cathedral. "The pig isn't guilty for what poverty brings," he said, invoking a colorful adage about inequality.
But a poll suggested 85 percent of Chileans want the looters prosecuted. Said city worker Aran Fuentes: "After all that we've done for other countries, to present ourselves to the rest of the world as looters really hurts."