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Colombia Sees Bouts Of Looting As Coronavirus Fallout Puts People Out Of Work

Police stand guard during a government order for residents to stay home, to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus, as a resident walks to a food store in Soacha on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia, on March 25.
Police stand guard during a government order for residents to stay home, to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus, as a resident walks to a food store in Soacha on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia, on March 25.

In Colombia, a spike in coronavirus cases has forced many towns and cities that had been reopening — including Bogotá and Medellín — to issue new lockdown orders. That's making life especially difficult for poor people who need to work in order to eat. And in some communities, they have turned to looting.

The most dramatic case occurred July 6 in the Caribbean coast village of Tasajera when a scramble to steal gasoline ended in a hellish fireball.

As a gasoline tanker approached the village, the driver swerved to miss a crocodile, he later told reporters. His truck overturned and people swarmed the vehicle to pilfer the gas. But when one of the raiders tried to steal the truck's battery, a spark set off a massive explosion.

A video posted on social media shows several men running from the burning tanker with their clothes on fire. Forty people have died from burns, according to national news reports.

One survivor, Daniel Benites, told NPR that he had just filled a plastic jug with gasoline when the tanker exploded. "The impact of the explosion blew me into a puddle of water," he said. That offered some protection but he suffered burns on his arms and face.

Sporadic episodes of looting have broken out elsewhere in Colombia, too. Four days after the gas tanker exploded, a truck loaded with fish overturned on a highway near Cartagena. Police fired shots but the looters ignored them and picked the truck clean. In Medellín in April, residents stole from a vehicle carrying humanitarian aid.

The incidents come as economic fallout from the coronavirus hits Colombia. Around the country government food donations have been sporadic. And while some towns and cities have partially reopened, the economy contracted by 20% in April and has yet to rebound. Unemployment has jumped to 21%, up from 12% at the start of the year.

After hungry residents tried to loot stores in March when Bogotá's lockdown began, city council member Heidi Sánchez tweeted: "The COVID-19 crisis has widened inequalities in our city and our country. Hunger also kills!"

Edilbert Ariza (left) lost four relatives in a fuel truck explosion in Tasajera, Colombia. He and other local residents had been taking gas from the overturned truck before the fire broke out. He sits next to his nephew, Anderson Rodríguez.
/ John Otis for NPR
Edilbert Ariza (left) lost four relatives in a fuel truck explosion in Tasajera, Colombia. He and other local residents had been taking gas from the overturned truck before the fire broke out. He sits next to his nephew, Anderson Rodríguez.

Even before the outbreak, Tasajera was depressed. It sits on a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and a mosquito-infested swamp. Many residents live in huts built atop trash heaps that serve as makeshift dykes.

Besides fishing, about the only way to make a buck is by selling soft drinks to motorists on the highway, but there's no longer much traffic due to the pandemic. That may be why residents were willing to risk their lives to steal fuel, says Edilbert Ariza, who grew up in the village and lost four relatives in the explosion.

Ariza says his loved ones were just scraping by and figured they could make some easy money by selling the gas. Shaking his head, Ariza says: "Look at the consequences."

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