Outbreaks of looting have spread across Argentina as mobs take advantage of strikes by police demanding pay raises to match inflation.
Videos showed people shattering glass doors at stores and hauling out everything from mattresses and mobile phones to prams and beer.
The death toll from the chaotic outbursts climbed to five as officers rallied outside negotiating sessions, citizens huddled inside their homes and businesses, and federal troops deployed to trouble spots.
The trouble spread to at least 19 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, and most commerce shut down in many cities 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 wanted 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,” Mr Capitanich told reporters. He said the national government was in continual contact with Argentina’s provincial leaders and that any salary dispute must be resolved through negotiation, not extortion.
The government has sent federal police, border patrol officers and other security forces to hot spots where people have armed themselves in fear of mobs. Prosecutors were put on alert to build criminal cases against looters, and justice minister Julio Alak warned that people co-ordinating violence through social networks would be charged.
Looting first broke out in Cordoba province last week, damaging hundreds of businesses and leaving two dead and more than 100 people injured before the governor and police reached a deal that effectively doubled police salaries to 12,000 pesos (about £1,170) a month.
The national government initially blamed the phenomenon on Cordoba’s governor, a political rival of Ms Fernandez. But by yesterday, it was clear that even close presidential allies were struggling as police earning base salaries of less than 6,000 pesos (£585) a month staged copycat strikes across Argentina.
A third victim died when his supermarket was set on fire as he defended it from a mob in Almirante Brown, Buenos Aires province, where Fernandez loyalist governor Daniel Scioli appealed for calm. The fourth and fifth victims were young men who were inside stores being looted in Entre Rios and Jujuy provinces.
Mr Scioli’s leadership was tested again yesterday 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 (£835) a month. Those officers were holding out for 12,500 as a base salary. Most others returned to work, the provincial government said.
With consumer prices rising at more than 25% 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 workers walk off the job demanding their own raises. Their union said many public hospitals around the country are seeing similar demands.
Tuesday marks 30 years since the swearing in of president Raul Alfonsin ended Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship. A huge stage has been constructed in front of the government palace and all political parties invited to celebrate the anniversary together.
But the late president’s son, legislator Ricardo Alfonsin, said they should probably postpone the show, “given what’s happening in the country”.
“I wonder if it wouldn’t be healthier to take advantage of this formal act of memory and have the government and all political sectors commit together to defend the democracy and its institutions and work without speculations to ensure domestic peace,” he said.