CONCEPCION, Chile – The Chilean military's humanitarian aid effort hit the streets, carrying food and water to some areas that had seen little of either since a mammoth earthquake struck five days ago.
Soldiers filled trucks with plastic bags of cooking oil, flour and canned beans, and municipal crews delivered the packages Wednesday to areas secured by troops from looters. The humanitarian role for Chile's army marked a shift for a military long associated with dictatorship-era repression.
Survivors cheered the troops' arrival and the restoration of order in streets still littered with rubble, downed power lines and destroyed cars. But some criticized that the first place in Concepcion to get an aid delivery was a street of houses inhabited by military families.
"This entire block belongs to the army," Yanira Cifuentes, 31, said of the houses on General Novoa Avenue. She said her husband is an officer.
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.
Military officers who refused to give their names insisted their families were suffering, too, and said many soldiers have been working around the clock since the quake not knowing how their loved ones fared.
Saturday's magnitude-8.8 quake and tsunami ravaged a 700-kilometer (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.
After days of looting, rifle-toting soldiers occupied nearly every block of hard-hit Concepcion on Wednesday, enforcing a curfew that expired at noon. With the streets more secure, they focused on aid.
The first aid convoy — which left immediately after the curfew expired — was the start of a ground operation throughout the disaster area, army Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Andrades said.
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 must follow military decisions under terms of the state of emergency declared by President Michelle Bachelet.
Some people were angry at the local government for announcing Tuesday that none of the first aid shipments would go to neighborhoods where residents took goods from ruined stores. Many of those neighborhoods are Concepcion's poorest.
"Aid should 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."
His sister Marcela Sarzosa, a 44-year-old homemaker who lives across the train tracks from a huge supermarket whose looting by hundreds of her neighbors sparked more widespread break-ins in Concepcion, said: "I didn't loot anything. Who's going to help me?"
Citizens' applause — mixed with cries of "Finally!" — have soldiers proud of their role in keeping the peace, a welcome feeling for many in Chile's armed forces who have generally not been used for police work during 20 years of democracy.
Since the bloody 1973-1990 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 Bachelet took the unprecedented step on Sunday of declaring an emergency that turned 14,000 soldiers into peacekeepers in their own country.
Aid from the national government had begun to reach some small communities around Concepcion by helicopter Tuesday, but the distribution effort became visible to the rest of the public only Wednesday with the convoy of seven dump trucks delivering food bags.
The food was donated by the government and businesses including the Lider Hipermart chain — a subsidiary of Wal-Mart — whose one store in Concepcion that wasn't looted has now been commandeered by the Chilean military.
C-17 transport planes were delivering more food and troops to Concepcion, and some 150 military trucks were being deployed in the disaster area. Military helicopters ferried disaster aid from the city to smaller towns and villages along the Pacific coast that were destroyed by the tsunami.
Amid continuing aftershocks, officials installed barriers around more tall buildings in Concepcion. Most businesses in the hard-hit city were still closed, with power and water only slowly coming back in scattered areas. Many survivors still had to take river water in buckets to flush toilets.
In Chile's capital of Santiago, air force chief Gen. Ricardo Ortega said he had planes ready to deliver aid just two hours after the quake but had to wait for Bachelet's emergency declaration Sunday. Bachelet said that Ortega was "badly informed" and that an air force helicopter wasn't ready for her to inspect damage until nearly six hours after the quake.
Seeking to end squabbling over the government's performance — the navy conceded it should have issued a tsunami alert — Bachelet declared: "Enough with pointing fingers. The main problem is helping the people."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera and Eva Vergara in Concepcion and Federico Quilodran in Santiago contributed to this report.