TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS—Less than an hour after opening its doors, the new Mall of Central America was overrun Monday by thousands of impoverished locals, who ransacked the region's largest shopping center in a smash-and-grab frenzy.
"We were simply unable to control the crowds," mall manager Jose Cepeda said. "People were drawn from miles away by our spectacular opening-day sales, product demonstrations in the beautiful glass atrium, electricity, and restroom toilet paper."
After a gala ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring a performance by Latin pop superstar Luis Miguel, the mall's doors opened to the public at 9 a.m. By 9:40, looters had begun stripping shelves of desperately needed staples.
"Many of the area's residents have lived their entire lives in cardboard shacks," Cepeda said. "I believe some of them were simply overwhelmed by the presence of so many durable goods all in one place."
The chaos escalated when a group of armed revolutionaries from the Honduran countryside raided JCPenney.
"Just after 11 a.m., machine-gun-toting marauders flooded in from the northern section of the underground parking lot and descended on JCPenney, demanding keys to the safe," mall security guard Carlos Acevedo said. "When menswear clerks refused, they fired machine guns in the air and spread out. Within minutes, they had moved to other areas of the mall, taking Camp Snoopy by force and eventually advancing their line to include all of LEGOLand."
The raid was suppressed when government forces arrived and fired tear gas and rubber bullets on the marauders, sending them fleeing into the Rainforest Cafe.
The larger riot, however, was well underway. Upon hearing gunfire and seeing flames pour out of JCPenney, throngs of shoppers raced for the mall's exits, grabbing whatever merchandise they could on their way out. The mall's wooden benches were pulled up and broken into firewood. And while no fatalities were reported, 32 shoppers were seriously injured when an overloaded glass elevator plunged three stories to the ground.
"It all happened so fast," Sbarro employee Maria Dominguez said. "Suddenly, everyone was in the food court, grabbing anything they could, taking hot-dog buns and pretzels right off the warmers, overturning the ICEE machines. Then I heard some sort of explosion in the direction of the Build-A-Bear store, and all the lights went out."
Most of the violence and looting occurred in the first few hours, but fires fed by plastic Sam Goody shopping bags and Styrofoam TCBY cups raged long into the night.
A spokesman for ASI Development, the U.S. investment group that built the Mall of Central America, as well as the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, called the episode "a small setback," vowing that the mall will reopen as soon as possible.
"With the addition of better-armed security personnel, good long-range rifles, and perhaps a control tower and perimeter fence, we should be back in business for the busy Navidad season," ASI spokesperson Valerie Manning said. "Actually, I'm pleased by the tremendous enthusiasm shown for the mall's merchandise. Naysayers predicted there would be no demand for high-end, brand-name retail goods in Central America, but I think they've been violently proven wrong."
Manning also expressed confidence that re-staffing the mall's stores will not be a problem.
"Although a great number of employees fled, there are vast numbers of unemployed ready to fill those positions," Manning said. "This time of year, Tegucigalpa is flooded with migrant laborers from the Honduran countryside, what with the work in the fields grinding to a halt during winter."
Though the average annual income in Central America is $922, Manning said she expects the mall to be a hit.
"We'll be offering on-the-spot approval for Macy's credit cards, so there will be no reason not to take advantage of their big sale on all DKNY bedding, including sheets, pillowcases, duvet covers, and shams," Manning said. "Bring the whole extended family. We're just a 12-hour canoe trip down the Pirre River and a three-day bus ride from Panama City."
Manning noted that the mall has almost no competition in the immediate vicinity, other than a local market where bananas, coffee, and cacao are sold.
"We built the mall because our research indicated this area was extremely under-retailed," Manning said. "The average U.S. city has 18 square feet of retail space per person, compared to 1.2 here in Honduras. And talk about a customer base: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica are the three most densely populated countries in the entire Western Hemisphere."
Mall visitor and father of five Andres Higuera, 37, made the trip from his slum village near Managua, Nicaragua, after hearing an ad for the grand opening on his transistor radio.
"I heard of a place with endless supplies of food and clothing," said Higuera, the soles of his only pair of shoes worn through from the trip. "I had to make the journey, for the sake of my family. It was difficult, but well worth it: Never have I seen so many Eddie Bauer rollneck sweaters."