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Chile quake: Locals with guns stand guard in Concepcion

Locals in Concepcion hunker down with guns and hand-held radios, while mobs run free and the military tries to gain traction.

CONCEPCION, Chile – About 3,000 Chilean military troops now have a tight hold on the center of Chile’s second-largest city, located 70 miles from the epicenter of Saturday’s earthquake that devastated much of central Chile.

But food, water and medical supplies are still slow to arrive in Concepcion. And concern about one of the world’s worst earthquakes in a century quickly shifted to an even greater worry about the mass of fellow residents breaking into shops left and right.

Soon after the earthquake, many of the city’s residents began to pour onto the streets. Eventually, hundreds of poor residents in search of food broke into supermarkets on Sunday. But that soon swelled into mobs ransacking whatever they could get their hands on in the city.

“The social earthquake that has happened here in recent days has been worse [than the earthquake],” said Thomas Forende, 45, who manages a milk cooperative in the city.

Slideshow: scenes of destruction

Slideshow: day three of Chile quake

On Sunday evening around 6 p.m., a giant Lider supermarket on the corner of Prat and Maipu streets was targeted. The police at first reluctantly let some looters take away food, but when some started lugging out widescreen television sets, even laundry machines, the police stepped in with tear gas and water cannons.

Angelea Villalobos, 41, witnessed the ransacking of the Lider. As she sits amid the rubble of her 1932 home, which splattered into thousands of pieces, a coffee pot simmers over a small fire. She explains that her family has enough food to hold out for two or three more days.

Villalobos says she and her neighbors on Maipu Street remain vigilant 24 hours a day behind makeshift fences set up on each entrance to their street to keep the looters at bay. Last night, she heard bullets.

“Till yesterday, this was a lawless no man’s land,” said Villalobos.

Jose Gonzalez, 46, chief of a gas distribution service in Concepcion, shares a similar view. He and dozens of neighbors coordinate with hand-held radios and wield guns, knives and thick wooden sticks to protect their middle-class Valle Noble community about 10 minutes outside of town.

Across the street from Valle Noble, with its neat, modern homes, they watched in horror as mobs plundered a gas station and a Ripley department store warehouse. “All day, people did not take food away from Ripley, rather televisions, clothes, everything they could get their hands on. This is just thievery,” said Gonzalez.

Others like Caroline Poblete, 34, a housewife with two children, complain about the slow response from Chile's government. "I did not support General Augusto Pinochet, but right now we could use a Pinochet," she says in disgust.

As one Chilean news television presenter said: “Chileans in earthquake areas are asking why the press can arrive so quick and not the government.”

In a tactic reminiscent of the Pinochet era, the government has declared martial law to halt the looting. From 8 p.m. Monday to noon Tuesday, residents were prohibited from walking or driving the streets. Tuesday, martial law commenced even earlier, at 6 p.m.

Troops toting large rifles man the city’s most important and busiest steets and stand guard in front of gas stations.