- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

CONCEPCION, Chile | Four days after a deadly earthquake, Chile’s military finally launched a massive humanitarian aid effort Wednesday that promised to improve an image long associated with dictatorship-era repression.

Its first delivery went to a neighborhood of military families who already had food.

After days of looting, rifle-toting army troops occupied nearly every block of hard-hit Concepcion on Wednesday, enforcing a curfew that expired at noon with checkpoints throughout the city. With the streets more secure, they focused on aid.

Soldiers had worked overnight stuffing flour, canned beans, cooking oil and tea into hundreds of plastic bags that volunteers loaded into dump trucks for distribution to survivors, many of whom had gone without fresh food or drinking water since Saturday’s quake.

The convoy rolled minutes after the curfew expired — the first of many to deploy throughout the disaster area, said Army Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Andrades.

Its first stop: A neighborhood inhabited by military families, next to army headquarters in Concepcion.

“This entire block belongs to the army,” said Yanira Cifuentes, 31, the very first to get aid. She said her husband is an officer.

Mrs. Cifuentes said the aid was welcome after days of sleeping in tents and sharing food with neighbors over a wood fire. But she also said the neighborhood hadn’t gone hungry because residents had access to food at the regiment.

“Until now, we have been OK, sharing everything with each other,” she said.

It was not clear who ordered the first food delivery to the military housing on General Novoa Avenue. Army Cmdr. Antonio Besamat said local authorities controlled food distribution, with the armed forces providing only security. Juan Piedra, of the National Emergency Office, said civilian officials report to the military under terms of the state of emergency declared by President Michelle Bachelet.

Some residents were angry, not at the troops, but at City Hall, which had announced Tuesday that none of the first aid shipments would go to neighborhoods inhabited by people who took goods from ruined stores. Many of those neighborhoods are Concepcion’s poorest.

“Aid has to reach those who have nothing first,” said Luis Sarzosa, 47, a heavy equipment operator. “The well-off always get things first and the people with nothing, they leave to the side.”

Survivors had cheered the troops’ arrival and the restoration of order in streets still littered with rubble, downed power lines and destroyed cars. Citizens’ applause — mixed with cries of “Finally!” — have soldiers proud of their role in keeping the peace, an unusual feeling for many in Chile’s armed forces during 20 years of democracy.

Since the bloody 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, many Chileans have preferred that soldiers stay inside their barracks. But police were overwhelmed when looting began after the quake, and Ms. Bachelet took the unprecedented step Sunday of declaring an emergency that turned 14,000 soldiers into peacekeepers.

Saturday’s magnitude 8.8 quake and tsunami ravaged a 435-mile stretch of Chile’s Pacific coast. Downed bridges and damaged or debris-strewn highways made transit difficult if not impossible in many areas. The official death toll reached 802 on Wednesday.

Amid continuing aftershocks, officials installed barriers around more tall buildings in Concepcion, including a 20-story apartment building leaning over Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue.

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