Responding to the earthquake is the first major test

In Pisco, where hundreds of people died in homes and in a church that collapsed, soldiers from Peru's special forces patrolled streets near the central plaza. Hungry residents looted a market looking for food on Friday, while others pillaged trucks carrying food and supplies on the highway from Lima, the capital.
"The people have lost respect for the police, and that's why the armed forces have been sent," said Lt. Giancarlos Vernal while on patrol in Pisco. "At night, the thieves enter homes and take what they can."

Responding to the earthquake is the first major test of the government of President Alan Garcia, whose term began last year. Garcia said Saturday that he was not ready to impose a curfew in the region but that he was prepared to "saturate" earthquake-affected areas with police forces if necessary.

Disorder spread from Pisco to other coastal cities, according to local news media reports, with much of the looting and armed robberies reported in Chincha Alta and Ica. The authorities attributed some of the crime to escaped prisoners from Tambo de Mora prison in Chincha Alta. Hundreds of prisoners escaped after one of the prison's walls crumbled in the earthquake.

Meanwhile, aftershocks, including one that briefly shook high-rise buildings as far north as Lima on Friday night, kept many people in Peru on edge.

In a soccer stadium in Pisco, more than 500 people rushed a truck that ran out little packets of crackers, candy and toilet paper, screaming that they had not eaten and accusing rescue workers of keeping supplies for themselves.

Despite temperatures that dipped into the low 50s in the desert night, many residents in Pisco slept outside their destroyed homes to protect their belongings from looters and scavengers.

"We're in the street without food, without blankets," said Margarita Quintanilla, 62, a street vendor who slept near her daughter and grandchildren in front of their crumbled home. Quintanilla said she was worried her wares, electronic goods, might be irretrievable.

"Everything just fell down," she said. "Now we have nothing."

Some reports said trucks carrying aid at the entrance to the city had been looted. And rumors spread that cholera and other diseases could emerge in the area.

"The possibility of an epidemic is eliminated," Garcia said in an attempt to quell such fears.

About 30,000 tents are needed in the region until homes are rebuilt, said Milo Stanojevich, director in Peru for CARE, the international relief organization.

Relief efforts were being initiated by foreign governments and aid groups, according to Agence France-Presse. Donor nations included the United States, Japan, Canada, Spain, Italy and France. Several of Peru's neighbors were also mobilizing to send help.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This article appeared on page A - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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