Colombia Sees Bouts Of Looting As Coronavirus Fallout Puts People Out Of Work : Coronavirus Updates The most dramatic case occurred earlier this month when a scramble to steal gasoline ended in a hellish fireball. Other recent incidents involved residents pilfering a humanitarian aid vehicle.

Colombia Sees Bouts Of Looting As Coronavirus Fallout Puts People Out Of Work

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In Colombia, a spike in COVID-19 cases has forced many places to reissue lockdown orders. That's making life especially miserable for poor people who need to work. Now some have turned to looting. John Otis reports on one episode that ended in tragedy. And just a quick warning - this story contains sound from a video that some listeners may find upsetting.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The village of Tasajera sits on a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and a mosquito-infested swamp. Many residents live in huts built atop trash heaps that serve as makeshift dikes. Besides fishing, about the only way to make a buck is by selling soft drinks to motorists on the highway running through the village. But coronavirus lockdowns have disrupted Colombia's economy, and there's no longer much traffic. That may be why scores of Tasajera residents were willing to risk their lives last week following a bizarre accident. As a gasoline tanker approached the village, the driver swerved to miss a crocodile. His truck overturned, and within minutes, people swarmed the vehicle to pilfer the gas.



OTIS: In this video shared on social media, people pry open the tank and start filling plastic jugs with gasoline. But when one of the raiders tried to remove the truck's battery, a spark set off a massive explosion. Seven people died instantly, while about 70 others were badly injured.



OTIS: In this video, five men whose clothes have been burned off their bodies stumble into a nearby clinic. Others were airlifted to hospitals in Bogota. So far, at least 39 people have died. One of the survivors is Daniel Benites. In a telephone interview, he says he had just filled a jug with gasoline when the truck exploded.

DANIEL BENITES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Benites says the blast knocked him into a pool of water that offered some protection from the flames. The incident prompted critics to paint Tasajera as a haven for freeloaders. But except for some food handouts, villagers point out that they've received almost no help from government officials, who have ordered them to shelter in place.

EDILBERT ARIZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Among those defending the honor of Tasajera is Edilbert Ariza. He grew up in the village but now lives in Bogota. We meet as he's on his way to the coroner's office to identify the body of his nephew, 1 of 4 relatives who died from injuries sustained in the explosion.

ARIZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ariza says his relatives were just scraping by and figured they could make some easy money by selling the fuel. Shaking his head, Ariza says, look at the consequences. As it turns out, Tasajera is one of several Colombian communities that have seen outbreaks of looting.



OTIS: The latest involved a truck loaded with fish that overturned on a highway near the tourist city of Cartagena. Police fired shots in the air to break up the crowd, but the looters ignored them and picked the truck clean.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

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