''Argentina is rotting from inside...This country is lost.''
CONCORDIA, Argentina (Reuters) - In Argentina's poorest city, people rummage through trash for scraps of food alongside pigs and wild dogs, unemployment tops 40 percent and even the mayor says ''hell'' is just around the corner.
Desperate and hungry as Argentina suffers its worst economic crisis, dozens of jobless gather every day at Concordia's city dump to sift through mounds of plastic bags, shards of glass and cigarette butts in search of lunch.
''You used to be able to find some chicken skins or maybe a piece of potato to take home to your kids, but now too many people come here,'' said Fabian Martinez, 28, as others crowded around a recently arrived garbage truck.
''These people are killing themselves. There are no jobs.''
Just like Argentina itself, decades of corruption and economic chaos have sparked Concordia's spectacular fall from one of the most opulent corners of the world to a wasteland of crime, poverty and financial ruin.
Only half a century ago, the ''Citrus Capital of Argentina'' north of Buenos Aires was a vibrant exporter of oranges, lumber and Argentina's renowned grass-fed beef. Floods of German and Italian immigrants arrived to plant lush orchards and cash crops on some of the world's richest farmland.
Today, a nationwide-high 70 percent of Concordia's 140,000 people are unable to meet their basic needs in food, health and clothing. One U.S. dollar buys 40 pounds (20 kg) of oranges at local fruit stands, and the city's shantytowns are ringed by thousands of acres (hectares) of unused land.
Many of the local problems trickle down from a four-year recession that has left Argentina's financial system near collapse, closed entire industries and left half of the country's 36 million people living in poverty.
'KIDS EAT POISON'
But with a new $30 million public hospital unable to open after construction finished three years ago because the city has not hooked up running water, Concordia seems like a microcosm of Argentina's wider problems.
''You want to know what's going on here? My kids are eating poison because there's so much corruption!'' screams a furious elderly woman as she digs with her hands through a pile of trash taller than she is. ''That's what this is all about.''
Just outside downtown sits a giant, wavy block of concrete that is actually a monument to the ''achievements'' of Concordia's previous mayor. It cost $200,000 to build.
The current mayor says his town is now paying the cost for a long legacy of living off government handouts that suddenly dried up after Argentina's federal government defaulted in January on part of its $140 billion public debt.
''For too many years, people lived off subsidies instead of investing or working on something productive,'' Mayor Hernan Orduna said in an interview. ''It became part of who we are.''
Concordia has been further paralyzed by a nasty dispute with the the provincial governor, who Orduna says had been withholding funds needed to cover salaries for city officials like police, some of whom have not been paid for months.
The political brawl is the talk of Barrio Fatima, a shantytown where almost the only people with regular income ''work'' for the city government but are unable to explain what exactly it is they do.
''The politicians make all the money disappear. But who fights over it? The poor do. It's us,'' said Andres Martin, standing outside his shack. He hikes up his jogging suit pants to reveal a swollen left leg covered with bloody open sores crusted with dirt, the result of kidney problems.
Most in the neighborhood long ago gave up any hope of finding permanent work. Many are bloated from malnutrition. Most have some kind of visible serious health problem.
''I don't think about a job like my parents used to. Maybe one day I'll go back and try fifth-grade again,'' said Roxana, 16, cradling her 12-day-old baby in her arms as her 11 younger siblings frolicked among chickens, ducks and rabbits.
Carlos Lieberman, editor of the daily El Heraldo, says such poverty is getting worse and will make the task of reviving the city that much harder if the national economy ever stabilizes.
''There's a culture of not working,'' Lieberman said. ''It's all political cronyism. We had terrible floods a couple months ago and transients actually moved in to areas that were underwater so they could get government assistance.''
Doctors at Concordia's largest hospital say a massive crime wave has been worsened by a sudden flood of guns into the city. An off-duty police officer had his throat slashed this month after being confronted in a bar.
''Corruption and theft are everywhere, even here,'' said Miguel Angel Nicola, a psychiatrist who runs the Felipe Heras hospital. ''People steal cotton swabs, injections, pills, everything, and then sell them on the street. It's horrible.''
Some efforts are being made locally to stem the crisis. The mayor waved a list of the names of the ''sons of the bitches'' he said owed his government taxes. Others stage daily street protests to demand all politicians resign and call elections.
But Armando Rodriguez, an 80-year-old former barber who says he plans to die soon in his solitary tent in the plaza outside city hall, sees no end in sight to the decay.
''In my 80 years, I've seen all the politicians and changing them has never improved anything,'' he spat as he leaned on a cane and pulled at his cardigan in the evening cold. ''Argentina is rotting from inside. This country is lost.''
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