Chaos descended upon an Argentine resort town hosting the 34-nation Summit of the Americas. Violent street protests left scores of local businesses ransacked and several banks torched few kilometers away from the locale where heads of state from the hemisphere opened the two-day event.
Argentine security forces fired tear gas, made dozens of arrests, and ultimately restored some semblance of order, but not before the tense calm that had existed between protesters and security forces protecting summit participants had been obliterated.
Masked youth hurled Molotov cocktails, shattered storefront windows and, in some cases, directly battled riot police who emerged from barricades that had been erected to cordon off some 220 square city blocks for the Summit of the Americas.
A small local grocery store operator said he was shocked and saddened by what he witnessed. "I kept my shop open until I saw everyone running, and then I closed up. And now we can see the destruction that was caused," he said.
An outraged Mar del Plata Mayor Daniel Katz laid the blame on Argentina's federal police force, which he said was slow to intervene. "We have to ask why, in this country, the police is afraid to act when it sees violence. There is a time for discussion, but when delinquents are breaking windows, the police have to do something. And, I am sorry, if that means cracking someone's head open, so be it," he said.
Repeated calls to Argentine security officials were not answered.
The violence marred what had been a day of peaceful marches and a spirited rally by tens of thousands of leftist demonstrators in Mar del Plata. The highlight was an appearance by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed socialist, who said a proposed hemisphere-wide free trade zone backed by President Bush is dead. "Here in Mar del Plata is the tomb of the FTAA. The people of the Americas are burying the FTAA. United we can defeat imperialism and lead our people to a better life," he said.
The FTAA, which also has the support of Mexico and most Central American nations, would allow goods to transit tariff-free from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. President Bush says the initiative would boost prosperity and consolidate democracy throughout the region. But Mr. Chavez prefers a trade pact of solely Latin American nations that he says would protect the region from U.S. domination and subjugation.
In the crowd was Alejandro Moreno, an unemployed worker from Buenos Aires and an open admirer of the Venezuelan leader. "For me, Chavez is the ideal Latin American - just like the heroes from our independence [from Spain], he believes in a united, strong, sovereign, and free Latin America," he said.
Strong anti-U.S. statements by Mr. Chavez are nothing new. Asked about an encounter with the Venezuelan leader ahead of Friday's opening of the 34-nation Summit of the Americas, President Bush said he would be polite, because that is what the American people expect.
Even before the outbreak of violence, the arrival of a crush of protesters to this usually-sleepy seaside resort town had been met with fear by many local residents - a significant proportion of whom boarded up shops and left the municipality days ago. This reporter had difficulty finding a local taxi driver who would even go near Friday's demonstrations.