BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Many Argentines armed and barricaded themselves in their homes and stores in fear of looting mobs Tuesday as the nation's celebration of 30 years of uninterrupted democracy was marred by police strikes for higher pay.
Politicians struggled to assert their authority over security forces even as they agreed to salary increases so steep that many provinces won't be able to pay their debts at month's end, adding stress to an economy already suffering from 25 percent inflation.
President Cristina Fernandez sought to contain the crisis Tuesday night, charging that anti-democratic elements were trying to undo Argentina's hard-won gains. "We must condemn the extortion of those who carry arms to defend society," she declared.
The speech was her first response to a weeklong series of provincial police strikes. As officers abandoned their posts, and in some cases allegedly encouraged violence to pressure authorities, many of Argentina's 23 provinces have endured long nights of chaos as roving groups smashed through storefronts and fought over the merchandise inside.
Hospital and political authorities said at least seven people had been killed, including a police officer in northern Chaco province who was struck by a bullet below his protective vest Tuesday and a store owner whose burned body was found last week in his looted and torched market in Buenos Aires province.
The others allegedly died while looting. One young man was electrocuted while stealing from an appliance store in a rainstorm. Another fell off a motorcycle while carting off a television. A third died in a fistfight over stolen goods inside a ruined store.
Hundreds have been injured and thousands of businesses damaged in the scattered violence. While most officers were back at work after securing new deals, police uprisings continued Tuesday in several cities. Commerce has been shut down in many places, and even some public hospitals have turned away non-emergency patients for fear of being looted.
With consumer prices soaring, Argentines are accustomed to annual labor protests in which workers threaten chaos if they don't get their way. But strikes by armed police are more ominous in a country where social chaos, police crackdowns and spiraling violence ushered in the 1976 military coup and a world-record debt default in 2001.
"This was executed and planned with surgical precision," Fernandez said in her speech marking the end of the last military junta. She claimed many people became unwitting instruments of extortion by police who "liberated" areas where looting could happen.
"We have promoted the integration of the armed forces into democratic processes, and the same must be done with provincial police, once and for all," she said.
To free up cash for the raises, her Cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, announced a three-month delay in payments most Argentine provinces owe this month to the federal government on debts refinanced two years ago.
For their part, police complained that their unions aren't legally recognized, leaving them ill-equipped to negotiate for cost of living adjustments.
"There are police who are in extreme poverty," said Salvador Barratta, who runs an unofficial union of police and prison guards. "Here we police are second-class citizens."
Human rights groups warned against giving in too easily to the security forces' demands.
The deal Buenos Aires Gov. Daniel Scioli reached with rebellious officers Monday night includes an amnesty for rule-breaking officers, making them eligible for 14,000 promised promotions this month that will raise salaries far above the base pay he promised. The deal also lets officers who retired on 90 percent pay to return to work at twice their old salaries.
"The weapons given to security forces to protect citizens' life and property cannot be used to force decisions by constitutional powers," warned the human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies. "We think it's urgent that the security forces stop intensifying the violence and feeding incidents that pose very high risks to our society and its institutions."
Tuesday marked three decades since President Raul Alfonsin's inauguration ended the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Fernandez invited all political parties to assemble on a huge stage in front of the presidential palace for a long night of speeches and music to celebrate democracy's consolidation.
The late president's son, legislator Ricardo Alfonsin, and Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri both said the party should be called off, given the potential for another night of violence. Alfonsin called for "all political sectors to commit together to defend the democracy and its institutions."
The event went on as scheduled, however, and shortly after the president spoke, word spread that deals had been struck with police in Tucuman and Santa Fe, two of the last provinces where officers were holding out for higher pay.
Still, even governors who restored calm by agreeing to steep police pay raises days earlier seemed wary of declaring victory. Strikes by public health workers are spreading, and other public employees are clamoring for raises, too.
Gov. Jose de la Sota, who effectively doubled police salaries in Cordoba to about $1,915 a month at the official exchange rate, said governors should agree on single national pay scale to avoid more trouble.
Entre Rios Gov. Sergio Urribarri accused officers of "sedition, a crime against the democratic system."