In Argentina, scattered looting portends ugly election race as inflation bites

By Nicolás Misculin and Carlos Barria

BUENOS AIRES/BARILOCHE (Reuters) - A spate of looting of stores and supermarkets around Argentina has led to dozens of arrests, a possible sign of increasing volatility with inflation over 100% and a tense race to general elections in October.

The looting, from southern Patagonian city Bariloche to wine region Mendoza and around capital Buenos Aires, has seen small groups of people break into stores, stealing food and other items, according to a Reuters witnesses, state TV and officials.

Over 100 people have been detained in different regions, officials have said. Videos and photos show stores broken into and ransacked, emptied shelves, people trying to force their way into supermarkets, and some small fires. Police have been mobilized to guard stores.

"For a few days we have been seeing this type of behavior," Minister of Security Anibal Fernandez said on Wednesday. He alleged that the looting was being coordinated.

"There's been an aim here to generate some kind of conflict and we have tried to prevent it," he said. "These are not spontaneous and it is not a coincidence."

Argentina, a major global grains exporter, is grappling with annual inflation at 113%, which is stoking a cost-of-living crisis. A recent sharp devaluation of the peso currency has pushed up consumer prices further this month. J.P. Morgan is forecasting inflation to end the year at 190%.

The steep inflation is adding fire to a three-way presidential election race, currently led by radical libertarian Javier Milei, who just beat conservative Patricia Bullrich and ruling party economy chief Sergio Massa in an August primary.

Milei, who has pledged to dollarize the economy and eventually scrap the central bank, has ridden a wave of voter anger in Argentina over inflation and rising hardship, with some four-in-10 people living in poverty.

"It is tragic to see again after 20 years the same images of looting we saw in 2001," he said on social media platform X, formerly called Twitter, referring to an economic crisis 20 years ago. He added that he did not endorse the violence.

"Poverty and looting are two sides of the same coin."

Presidential spokeswoman Gabriela Cerruti accused Milei of promoting the attacks to "destabilize" the country.

Bullrich, a former security minister and the candidate for the main conservative opposition coalition, criticized the looting and played up her law-and-order credentials.

"Argentina lives in disorder, and disorder seems to be the rule," she said. "Nothing justifies these attacks on private property or the government's inaction. We need order and that's it."

(Reporting by Nicolas Miculin, Maximilian Heath and Carlos Barria; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)