Venezuelan city devastated by looting during power outages

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) — Bakeries, butcher shops, hardware stores, malls, hotels, pharmacies — these were just some of the hundreds of businesses that were looted and vandalized in Venezuela's second-largest city during nationwide power outages.

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There were no reports of further unrest in Maracaibo on Wednesday, the day after the looting, as people formed long lines outside shops that hadn't been damaged and were selling food. But business leaders said devastation to the city's commercial life, of a kind unseen elsewhere in Venezuela during the blackouts, would complicate efforts to provide staple goods to people in the region.

"It was total madness," said Ricardo Acosta, a vice president of a business association in northwest Zulia state, of which Maracaibo is the capital.

He said looters sacked a cigarette factory and even stole the furniture from a church during a rampage Monday and Tuesday. An estimated 500 businesses were looted, he said.

The power outages that started during the evening rush hour on March 7 caused havoc across Venezuela, shutting down water pumps and phone and internet service for millions who were already struggling with widespread shortages of food and medicine amid the hyperinflation ravaging the country's economy.

The blackouts aggravated Venezuela's political standoff between opposition leader Juan Guaido, who said government corruption and incompetence caused the outages, and President Nicolas Maduro, who alleged that the United States and Guaido sabotaged the power grid.

Venezuelan authorities said they had made significant progress in restoring electricity, though some areas remained without power Wednesday.

Zulia has some of the poorest districts in Venezuela, and opposition sentiment is strong there. But some residents said hoodlums took advantage of the mood of desperation and looted whatever they could, including shoes, clothing and cellphones.

Venezuela's largest private food supplier, Empresas Polar, said a distribution center and a production plant for Pepsi-Cola Venezuela were hit during the chaos. So were a pasta plant and a beer distributor. The supplier reported the loss of large quantities of food, water and other drinks, vehicles, computers, office furniture and other items.

The damage to small businesses was particularly sad because many had donated meat, bread and other perishable goods to the hungry, realizing that the food would go bad without refrigeration, said Acosta, the business leader.

He said security forces did little to protect private property, instead stepping aside or watching as looters plundered shops.

Mayor Willy Casanova, however, said security forces in the city dispersed "criminals" trying to take advantage of the power cuts.

Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes of crowds roaming the streets and breaking into buildings. In some cases, shots were fired as guards or security forces attempted to fend off the looters before retreating.

Maduro did not comment on the unrest in Maracaibo as it unfolded, and instead highlighted government efforts to restore power nationwide. Guaido referred to the looting, saying the government had left the people "at the mercy of chaos."

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Associated Press journalists Christopher Torchia and Fabiola Sanchez contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.