Four days after a deadly earthquake, Chile's military finally launched a massive humanitarian aid effort Wednesday that promised to improve an image long associated with dictatorship-era repression.
After days of looting, rifle-toting army troops occupied nearly every block of hard-hit Concepcion on Wednesday, enforcing a curfew that expired at noon with checkpoints throughout the city. With the streets more secure, they focused on aid.
Soldiers had worked overnight stuffing flour, canned beans, cooking oil and tea into hundreds of plastic bags that volunteers loaded into dump trucks for distribution to survivors, many of whom had gone without fresh food or drinking water since Saturday's quake.
The convoy rolled minutes after the curfew expired — the first of many to deploy throughout the disaster area, said Army Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Andrades.
Its first stop: A neighborhood inhabited by military families, next to army headquarters in Concepcion.
"This entire block belongs to the army," said Yanira Cifuentes, 31, the very first to get aid. She said her husband is an officer.
Cifuentes said the aid was welcome after days of sleeping in tents and sharing food with neighbors over a wood fire. But she also said the neighborhood hadn't gone hungry because residents had access to food at the regiment.
"Until now we have been OK, sharing everything with each other," she said.
'Well-off always get things first'
Military officers who refused to give their names insisted their families were suffering, too, and that many soldiers have been working around the clock since the quake not knowing how their loved ones fared. Still, it was unclear who ordered the first food delivery to the military housing on General Novoa Avenue.
Army Cmdr. Antonio Besamat said local authorities controlled food distribution, with the armed forces providing only security. Juan Piedra, of the National Emergency Office, said civilian officials report to the military under terms of the state of emergency declared by President Michelle Bachelet.
Some residents were angry not at the troops but at City Hall, which had announced Tuesday that none of the first aid shipments would go to neighborhoods inhabited by people who took goods from ruined stores. Many of those neighborhoods are Concepcion's poorest.
"Aid has to reach those who have nothing first," said Luis Sarzosa, 47, a heavy equipment operator. "The well-off always get things first and the people with nothing, they leave to the side."
Added Marcela Sarzosa, a 44-year-old homemaker who lives in the Via Futuro slum: "I didn't loot anything. Who's going to help me?"
Survivors had cheered the troops' arrival and the restoration of order in streets still littered with rubble, downed power lines and destroyed cars. Citizens' applause — mixed with cries of "Finally!" — have soldiers proud of their role in keeping the peace, an unusual feeling for many in Chile's armed forces during 20 years of democracy.
Since the bloody 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, many Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks. But police were overwhelmed when looting began after the quake, and Bachelet took the unprecedented step on Sunday of declaring an emergency that turned 14,000 soldiers into peacekeepers.
Wednesday's food was donated by the Lider Hipermart chain — a subsidiary of Wal-Mart — other businesses, and the government. Meanwhile, the distribution effort gathered steam.
C-17 transport planes were delivering more food and troops to Concepcion, and some 150 military trucks took food to a looted supermarket for distribution. Military helicopters ferried disaster aid from the city to smaller towns and villages along the Pacific coast that were destroyed by the tsunami. In nearby Talca, a field hospital was erected to relieve pressure on a quake-damaged hospital in Concepcion, and officials were distributing 17,000 meal rations.
Saturday's magnitude-8.8 quake and tsunami ravaged a 435-mile stretch of Chile's Pacific coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas. The official death toll reached 802 on Wednesday.
Amid continuing aftershocks, officials installed barriers around more tall buildings in Concepcion, including a 20-story apartment building leaning over Bernardo O'Higgins Avenue.
Most businesses in Concepcion were still closed, power was out, and residents took water from a river to flush toilets. In Lota, a town of 50,000 where tent camps have sprouted, officials took water from the Rio Negro and trucked it to needy neighborhoods, urging residents to boil it before using it.
In Santiago, the capital, air force chief Gen. Ricardo Ortega said he had planes ready to deliver aid just two hours after the quake but had to wait for Bachelet's emergency declaration on Sunday. Bachelet said Ortega was "badly informed" and that an air force chopper wasn't ready for her to inspect damage until nearly six hours after the quake.
Seeking to end squabbling over the government's performance — the navy conceded it should have issued a tsunami alert — Bachelet declared: "Enough with pointing fingers. The main problem is helping the people."