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Argentina Declares State of Emergency

The government of Argentina has declared a state of emergency in response to a wave of supermarket looting that has swept across the country since last week. The measure gives President Fernando de la Rua special powers to deal with the violence. The looting that began in Argentina's Mendoza and Entre Rios provinces has gathered steam as this week has gone on.

The effects of Argentina's 42-month recession are resulting in supermarket looting and violence. Wednesday, Argentine television carried scenes of entire families ransacking supermarkets and small retail shops.

Police dressed in riot gear cracked down on the looting in San Miguel, outside Buenos Aires. However, in Entre Rios province, some 320 kilometers from the capital, thousands of looters were allowed to rob five supermarkets.

As shop owners began to clean up, they expressed anger with their neighbors who had done the damage but also with government officials, who they blame for the deteriorating economic and social situation.

The economic crisis has peaked in recent months as fears grow that Argentina will either default on its $132 billion debt or devalue its peso pegged to the U.S. dollar. While many feel a devaluation would eventually aid Argentina by bringing down production costs and boosting exports, in the short term millions of Argentines with dollar denominated debts would face bankruptcy. But with unemployment at over 18 per cent and state workers' salaries and pensions delayed, anger over perceived government inaction and corruption is erupting into nearly daily protests and frequent violence.

Furious over pay cuts, city hall workers in Cordoba City rioted in their offices Wednesday morning before being ousted by police. The rioting later spread to the surrounding streets where workers engaged in street fights with armed police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The last time Argentina saw such widespread looting was in 1989 when Argentina was suffering through a grave economic crisis and hyperinflation. The dire economic and social conditions forced then-president Raúl Alfonsín from office early.

Hoping to avoid a similar fate, the government Wednesday moved to distribute food to poor Argentines while President Fernando De la Rúa met with the nation's governors, top opposition figures, labor and religious leaders to discuss the current situation.