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

Jul 17, 2020
Originally published on July 17, 2020 2:59 pm

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

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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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In Colombia, a spike in COVID-19 cases has forced many places to reissue lockdown orders. That's making life especially miserable for poor people who need to work. Now some have turned to looting. John Otis reports on one episode that ended in tragedy. And just a quick warning - this story contains sound from a video that some listeners may find upsetting.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The village of Tasajera 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 dikes. Besides fishing, about the only way to make a buck is by selling soft drinks to motorists on the highway running through the village. But coronavirus lockdowns have disrupted Colombia's economy, and there's no longer much traffic. That may be why scores of Tasajera residents were willing to risk their lives last week following a bizarre accident. As a gasoline tanker approached the village, the driver swerved to miss a crocodile. His truck overturned, and within minutes, people swarmed the vehicle to pilfer the gas.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Crosstalk).

OTIS: In this video shared on social media, people pry open the tank and start filling plastic jugs with gasoline. But when one of the raiders tried to remove the truck's battery, a spark set off a massive explosion. Seven people died instantly, while about 70 others were badly injured.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Crosstalk).

OTIS: In this video, five men whose clothes have been burned off their bodies stumble into a nearby clinic. Others were airlifted to hospitals in Bogota. So far, at least 39 people have died. One of the survivors is Daniel Benites. In a telephone interview, he says he had just filled a jug with gasoline when the truck exploded.

DANIEL BENITES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Benites says the blast knocked him into a pool of water that offered some protection from the flames. The incident prompted critics to paint Tasajera as a haven for freeloaders. But except for some food handouts, villagers point out that they've received almost no help from government officials, who have ordered them to shelter in place.

EDILBERT ARIZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Among those defending the honor of Tasajera is Edilbert Ariza. He grew up in the village but now lives in Bogota. We meet as he's on his way to the coroner's office to identify the body of his nephew, 1 of 4 relatives who died from injuries sustained in the explosion.

ARIZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ariza says his relatives were just scraping by and figured they could make some easy money by selling the fuel. Shaking his head, Ariza says, look at the consequences. As it turns out, Tasajera is one of several Colombian communities that have seen outbreaks of looting.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Crosstalk).

OTIS: The latest involved a truck loaded with fish that overturned on a highway near the tourist city of Cartagena. Police fired shots in the air to break up the crowd, but the looters ignored them and picked the truck clean.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.