Political and social tension escalated this week amid reports of several looting outbreaks in several provinces nationwide.
Since last Friday, groups of people, sometimes dozens at a time, have forced their way into supermarkets and other stores, fuelled by calls on social media, authorities say.
Around 200 people, many of them minors, have been arrested for what locals call "piranha attacks.” Confirmed incidents have been reported in the provinces of Buenos Aires (specifically Moreno, Merlo, Tigre, Lomas de Zamora, Pilar, Escobar, Tres de Febrero, San Nicolás and General Pueyrredón), Córdoba, Mendoza, Chaco, Río Negro and Neuquén, including the Patagonian city of Bariloche.
Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni said Wednesday that at least 150 attempted lootings had taken place in the region since last Friday, with at least 94 arrests. He vowed that businesses of any size would be protected.
Images of ransacked shops sparked memories of Argentina's 2001 financial meltdown, when a huge debt default and collapse of the banking system led to desperate scenes of looting.
But while some attribute the plundering to the current economic crisis and runaway inflation, others see it as an orchestrated effort to destabilise the country ahead of October 22 elections. Government officials said as much this week, pointing the finger at presidential hopefuls Javier Milei and Patricia Bullrich for stoking unrest.
Underlining the severity of the outbreak, Economy Minister Sergio Massa announced from Washington DC on Wednesday that the government would set aside some seven million pesos in financial assistance for businesses that have been looted.
The raids come a little over a week after a presidential primary showed that brash political outsider Milei was the current presidential frontrunner ahead of the elections in October.
'Let them take what they find'
Poverty levels in Argentina stand at 40 percent, even higher according to private estimates. Adding to inflation woes, the government devalued the peso by 20 percent earlier this month, prompting businesses to raise prices even further.
Raúl Castells, leader of one of Argentina's "piquetero" social protest movements, admitted in a TV interview that he encouraged the looting and that "the real offence" was the price of food.
"If people can't find food, let them take what they find, even if it means exchanging it afterward for food," he told the Crónica television channel.
A number of politicians called for his immediate arrest and on Thursday a criminal denunciation was filed with the courts.
The looters have taken not only food but anything they can find, such as alcohol, cigarettes, clothes, and other items. One supermarket in Moreno, whose shelves were emptied, was set on fire.
On Tuesday, Cabinet Chief Agustín Rossi said many of those arrested had criminal records. He rejected the idea that the crimes were a "social reaction."
Security Minister Aníbal Fernández said, "this is not about people looting to feed their families," adding that some of those involved had "almost-new" cars.
He said the looting was "not spontaneous, it is not a coincidence” but still appealed for calm.
“We don't have reliable information to attribute it to anyone,” added the official.
President Alberto Fernández called Wednesday for all citizens to keep the “social peace” while his government resolves the economic and financial problems facing the nation.
He too speculated that the raids had been “organised” without naming Bullrich or Milei, both of whom reject the idea that they are behind the wave of attacks.