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Looting ends in Argentine province of Cordoba as governor, police agree to pay hikes

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – A sit-in by police seeking pay raises in Argentina’s second-largest city prompted hours of looting, robberies, injuries and vigilante mobs trying to protect their neighbourhoods before the provincial government agreed to the officers’ demands and peace returned to the streets Wednesday. Three deaths were reported amid the violence in Cordoba and a copycat effort to loot a store outside the nation’s capital.

The accord brings steep pay hikes for Cordoba police. Gov. Jose Manuel de la Sota said they will now be the best-paid in the nation. But the violence suggests how easily social conflicts can erupt in Argentina, where most cities are surrounded by slums known as “misery villages,” and street protests by activists demanding more handouts to keep up with inflation are a daily fact of life.

De la Sota, a political rival of President Cristina Fernandez who says she starves Cordoba of federal support, said her administration could have easily prevented the violence by sending national police in earlier.

“It’s like we have to burn our national identity document because there are some who don’t consider us part of the Argentine Republic,” de la Sota complained in a fiery speech Wednesday after resolving the strike.

The president’s Cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, denied this and accused de la Sota of trying to shift the blame for a problem that was entirely his responsibility. Still, 2,000 border police were dispatched to Cordoba by Wednesday afternoon to help restore order.

The violence began Tuesday evening after police abandoned their posts while the governor was travelling outside Argentina, and continued through the night, with storefronts shattered, mobs stealing merchandise, robbers attacking people in the streets and vigilantes arming themselves to protect their homes. Banks and schools were closed and people huddled inside Wednesday as more supermarkets and a mobile television van recording the violence were attacked, even as officers and provincial authorities negotiated the deal.

Hospital authorities reported two deaths: a young motorcyclist was shot in the chest and an 85-year-old man collapsed while his home was being robbed, according to Cordoba’s Voz del Interior newspaper. More than 100 were injured, mostly from shattered glass. At least 56 people were arrested, and both the governor and police chief said after signing the deal that anyone responsible for looting will go to jail.

The deal raises most officers’ monthly take-home pay to more than 10,000 pesos, said the governor’s Cabinet chief, Oscar Gonzalez. That amounts to $1,612 at the official exchange rate, or $1,075 at the black market rate many Argentines consider a more reliable measure. Not all officers were happy with the deal, but many were seen chanting and cheering at their success before returning to work.

De la Sota also described darker motives behind the strike: He called it a response to his decision to close 140 brothels that provide income to corrupt officers. “We know that this, which is a terrible business, horrible, is linked to drug trafficking and that it would bring us problems sooner or later,” he said.

While the streets returned to normal in Cordoba, about 50 people tried to loot a supermarket in Glew, a poor neighbourhood in southern Buenos Aires province, authorities said. The owner tried to fend them off with gunfire early Wednesday and his body was found after the building was set on fire, Cesar Orlando Mateo, a volunteer firefighter who responded to the scene, told Radio La Red.