As soon as the soldiers left, hundreds of people sloshed down alleys, ripping the metal shutters off stores and cleaning out merchandise. Only price tags were left, floating in the flooded streets.
They emptied nearly an entire city block within an hour.
“The hurricane was ugly. The people are worse,” said Arturo Campos. His shoe store, in another part of town, was ransacked.
Hurricane Wilma unleashed a dark side of this resort city, as hundreds of desperate residents stole everything from food to pizza delivery motorcycles. Few stores had anything left by Monday.
Most of the looting appeared to be carried out by residents, and few stores were spared.
It started Saturday, during the eye of the storm. Residents took advantage of the relative calm to drag tables, chairs and lamps from a furniture store, while others loaded up on cans of tuna and pasta at wrecked convenience stores.
On Sunday, as Hurricane Wilma’s winds and rain eased, people emerged after two days trapped in shelters or homes.
Necessities stolen first
First, they searched for necessities, walking into stores whose fronts had been ripped away and taking things like food, water and batteries.
Then they became bolder, pounding carts into the boarded-up windows of a grocery store in an attempt to break inside.
Others forced their way into department and appliance stores, piling clothes, television sets and other goods on bicycles and in pickup trucks.
Jeremy Dean, a 30-year-old financial adviser from Chattanooga, Tenn., said he went in search of a working phone, and instead found looting everywhere he looked, including people carrying away motorcycles from a Papa John’s Pizza. But he wasn’t afraid.
“We stayed out of everybody’s way, so it was OK,” he said.
There were fears the looters might turn on the stranded tourists, although there is no evidence that happened. At one point, officials quickly evacuated 30 people from a shelter surrounded by looting.
“They see foreigners and they think we have money,” said Aurilia Fernades, 38, of Spain.
Looters attacking police
Police struggled to control the crowds by setting up checkpoints to seize stolen goods and firing shots in the air to scare away crowds. But looters responded by throwing rocks and chunks of concrete.
“It’s chaos,” said fire official Gregorio Vergara. “They are taking things all over the city.”
Miguel Navarrete, a taxi driver, said the police couldn’t do anything.
“There were thousands and thousands of people taking everything and blocking the road,” he said. “Yesterday, I saw a guy leave with a chain saw. ’It’s not robbery. It’s a necessity,’ he told me. But that’s not something you can eat.”
Television images of the looting, including people sweeping medicine off pharmacy shelves, caught Mexico by surprise. Cancun is one of the country’s most prosperous regions, a draw for the rich who buy vacation homes and the poor who go to work in the high-paying hotel industry.
Still, mass immigration to the resort area has created shantytowns outside the glitzy hotel zones, and those areas were hit hard by the storm’s winds and rain, leaving many without homes or resources. Hundreds are at least temporarily jobless, fueling the desperation.
Victor Torres, 15, was trying to sell a gold bracelet in its original, padded box. Asked if he had taken it from a pillaged jewelry store across the street, Torres denied it, but defended the looters.
“Because they have insurance, the owners prefer that things get robbed,” he said. “They are going to receive thousands of pesos anyway. What do they care about the merchandise?”
Police arrested some 200 people and seized truckloads of washing machines, dishwashers and coffee makers.
Some stores escaped looting, either because they couldn’t be broken into or because police kept thieves away. One Wal-Mart, which had been heavily guarded, sat untouched.
At a Volkswagen dealership, the only damage was from winds and rain. Still, Tamara Vallejo, the sales manager, was upset by the looting.
“People are really miserable, but it isn’t an excuse for so much abuse,” she said. “It was really ugly.”