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Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

Lawlessness after quake in Chile fishing village

Residents siphon fuel from a ransacked petrol station in Talcahuano, Chile
Talcahuano residents siphon fuel from a ransacked petrol station

By Will Grant
BBC News, Talcahuano

Rene Orellana sleeps with a shotgun in his hands. "I have to," he says, motioning towards a shattered window frame covered with a tarpaulin.

"The looters have been into this room and took thousands of pesos and my wife's jewellery."

The small fishing port of Talcahuano is only a few kilometres down the coast from Chile's second biggest city, Concepcion, where the military and the police are out on the streets in their thousands.

Yet, it is a world away in terms of security.

The harbour has been decimated - first by the earthquake and then by the 15m-high (49ft) tsunami which threw boats and shipping containers out of the sea and into the port with massive force.

This was always a difficult place to live
Daniel Gonzalez
Talcahuano resident

Dozens of containers are now strewn around the harbour as though they were cardboard boxes, having crushed several people in their cars in the process.

In this scene of devastation, looters have made the most of the chaos. Many of the containers have been opened and their contents, be they bananas, nappies or computer equipment, taken by the desperate hordes.

"I've fired 500 of the 2,000 rounds of ammunition I've got," says Mr Orellana, who works for the Ministry of Public Works, showing off his gun licence.

"I fire over their heads to scare them off, and so far, it's worked."

Fending for itself

Neighbourhood vigilante groups such as the one led by Mr Orellana are cropping up across Talcahuano, as the security situation shows few signs of improving, days after the tsunami brought industry in this coastal village to a shuddering halt.

Banks are mere shells of smashed glass and metal, after the waves and then the thieves took everything inside.

Rene Orellana from the Ministry of Public Works, Talcahuano, Chile
Rene Orellana has fired hundreds of warning shots to ward off looters

Pharmacies and petrol stations have been ransacked too, as the few police present in the town watch on while residents siphon the remaining fuel from the tanks at the petrol pumps.

They only spring into action when tempers boil over or someone starts attacking one of the few cash machines still standing.

"This was always a difficult place to live," says one of Mr Orellana's neighbours, Daniel Gonzalez, who has lived in Talcahuano all his life.

"It is a poor neighbourhood like Boca in Buenos Aires or a favela in Brazil. A tough place, but normally with a good community spirit."

But now, he says, no-one is safe.

A question neither residents nor the authorities seem able to answer is why a village which is barely 10 minutes away from Chile's most militarized city has been left to fend for itself.

Pillaging

"We're concentrating on getting the aid and the security to other parts of the region which are in an even worse state," says one police officer on duty, Ricardo Cariaga.

Daniel Gonzalez
Daniel Gonzalez says no-one is safe in Talcahuano these days

Faced with a near impossible task until reinforcements arrive, he says they are just trying to keep the peace and make sure there is no further violence between the looters and the property owners.

Opinions on the security situation vary. Some people in Talcahuano say the crime is simply the result of a failure on the behalf of the authorities and the growing desperation of people in need of food, water and fuel.

Others are less tolerant.

"There can be no excuse for such pillaging and theft in today's society," says Alejandro Quiroz, who works with the Port Authority in Talcahuano.

In the midst of the carnage of the harbour, he is trying to make sense of the situation for a report to his employers - the first step, he says, in trying to rebuild a decimated fishing industry.

Map

"There were two catastrophes here. Beyond the natural damage caused by the tsunami and the earthquake, there has been so much human damage. It's totally unacceptable."

Our conversation is suddenly cut short by the sound of gunfire in the streets behind us. Mr Quiroz barely flinches. "This happens every day," he says.

"Without military authority in the village, something must be done to protect people from all of this."

Meanwhile Rene Orellana continues to survey the port from his rooftop, his weapon slung over his shoulder.

"I've personally saved dozens of people from attack in this apartment block," he says with pride.

His seaside view may have been obliterated by the stacks of empty containers pressed up against his outside wall but residents like Mr Orellana are not prepared to lose anything else to the tsunami.




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