Argentina has been hit by a wave of looting that has ratcheted up political tensions ahead of October elections as the country grapples with 113 percent annual inflation.
Since Friday, groups of people, sometimes dozens at a time, have forced their way into supermarkets and other stores, fueled by calls on social media, authorities say.
Around 200 people, many of them minors, have been arrested for what locals call “piranha attacks” — from the outskirts of the capital Buenos Aires, to the Patagonian city of Bariloche and the Mendoza wine region.
Images of ransacked shops have sparked memories of Argentina’s 2001 financial meltdown, when a huge debt default and collapse of the banking system led to desperate scenes of looting.
But while some attribute the plundering to the current economic crisis, others see it as an orchestrated effort to destabilize the country ahead of October 22 elections.
‘Let them take what they find’
Poverty levels in Argentina stand at 40 percent, and adding to inflation woes, the government devalued the peso by 20 percent earlier this month, prompting businesses to raise prices even further.
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Raul Castells, leader of one of Argentina’s “piquetero” social protest movements, said he encouraged the looting and that “the real offense” was the price of food.
“If people can’t find food, let them take what they find, even if it means exchanging it afterward for food,” he told the Cronica television channel.
Right-wing politicians have called for his arrest.
The looters have taken not only food but anything they can find, such as alcohol, cigarettes, clothes, and other items. One supermarket in Moreno, whose shelves were emptied, was set on fire.
On Tuesday, cabinet chief Agustin Rossi said many of those arrested had criminal records, rejecting the idea that the crimes were a “social reaction.”
Security Minister Anibal Fernandez said, “this is not about people looting to feed their families,” adding that some of those involved had “almost-new” cars.
He said the looting was “not spontaneous, it is not a coincidence. But we don’t have reliable information to attribute it to anyone.”
‘Crack and destabilize’
The raids come a little over a week after a presidential primary showed that brash political outsider Javier Milei was the current presidential frontrunner ahead of the elections in October.
The result shook the nation and highlighted widespread discontent with traditional parties.
“Tragic to see the same looting images as in 2001, 20 years later. Poverty and looting are two sides of the same coin,” Milei wrote on social media.
“Argentina can no longer bear this impoverishing model.”
A spokeswoman for the center-left presidency, Gabriela Cerruti, told Futurock radio that social media accounts belonging to Milei supporters had been “agitating” in favor of the looting.
She said Milei and right-wing candidate Patricia Bullrich had built “their public discourse based on the longing they have for democracy to crack and destabilize.”