BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Outbreaks of looting have spread across Argentina as mobs take advantage of strikes by police demanding pay raises to match inflation. The central government has dispatched federal police to trouble spots and appealed for an end to what some officials are calling treason.
By Monday, the death toll from the chaotic outbursts climbed to four as officers rallied at their stations. Many businesses were closed in fear just ahead of the December holidays, when Argentina's simmering social conflicts have a history of exploding in the summer heat.
President Cristina Fernandez's Cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich described the crimes as premeditated acts by groups that want to generate chaos and anxiety on the eve of Tuesday's 30th anniversary of Argentina's return to democracy.
"In some ways, this amounts to the crime of treason," Capitanich told reporters. He said the national government is in continual contact with Argentina's 23 governors and the Buenos Aires mayor, and that any salary dispute must be resolved through negotiation, not extortion.
The government has sent federal police, border patrol officers and other forces to hot spots where people are arming themselves in fear of mobs.
Looting first broke out Cordoba province last week, damaging hundreds of businesses and leaving two dead and more than a 100 people injured before the governor and police reached a deal that effectively doubles police salaries to 12,000 pesos a month. That's about $1,915 at the official exchange rate.
The national government initially blamed the phenomenon on Cordoba's governor, a political rival of Fernandez.
But even close presidential allies have been hit since then as police earning base salaries of less than 6,000 pesos stage copy-cat strikes across Argentina. A third victim died that first night when his supermarket was set afire as he defended it from a mob in Almirante Brown, in provincial Buenos Aires, where Gov. Daniel Scioli appealed for calm.
Scioli's leadership was tested again Monday after a dozen more stores were looted in Mar del Plata and hundreds of police gathered in a central square, rejecting his offer to raise entry-level salaries to what he called a "fair and reasonable" 8,570 pesos a month. The officers vowed to remain off the job until they get 12,500 as a base salary.
With police in many provinces demanding a doubling of their pay to keep ahead of inflation rising at more than 25 percent a year, other public employees are watching closely. Rio Negro's governor settled his province's 21-hour police strike by raising base salaries to 8,500 pesos, only to see health and sanitation workers walk off the job Monday, demanding their own raises.
The worst violence Sunday night was in Concordia, in Entre Rios province. Twenty people were injured and a young man was electrocuted inside a looted store. Capitanich would not identify him.
Looting continued Monday from northern Chaco province to Mar del Plata, south of the capital, where Mayor Gustavo Pulti asked that major businesses remain closed because messages posted on social networks were trying to provoke chaos.
In some areas of the province that surrounds Argentina's capital, days without electricity following summer thunderstorms have contributed to the tense situation, Capitanich acknowledged.
Associated Press Writer Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed to this story.