SANTIAGO – Friday saw a fifth consecutive day of protests at metro stations in the Chilean capital in response to the latest in a series of fare increases that have doubled the cost of a journey since 2007.
The disturbances spread to the point of forcing the shutdown of commuter rail service, leaving thousands of people stranded.
Until Friday, the campaign – led by high school and university students – has consisted mainly of mass evasion of fares, though some protesters vandalized turnstiles, broke down gates and smashed windows at stations.
But the situation escalated with clashes between youths and riot police inside several stations before the conflict spilled out onto the streets of Santiago.
The Carabineros, Chile’s militarized national police, have used tear gas inside the stations and even inside the metro cars.
Streets surrounding Plaza Italia, a square in the central city that is often the site of protests, were blocked by metal barricades and bonfires.
Following a meeting with President Sebastian Piñera, the interior minister said that the government would apply Chile’s draconian anti-terrorism law, which allows for greatly enhanced sentencing.
“We have invoked the State Security Law for those who are shown to be responsible for causing damage to the metro and its functioning,” Andres Chadwick said, claiming that “organized groups” were behind the vandalism.
The transportation minister, Gloria Hutt, said that the metro would likely remain shut down until sometime next week pending repairs to ensure the “safe and normal” operation of the system.
In the meantime, she said, authorities were deploying an additional 700 buses to cover the metro routes.
The spark for the rebellion was a fare hike that brought the price of a ride to 830 pesos ($1.20) during peak travel times, up from 420 pesos (60 cents) in 2007.
Disgruntled metro riders grew more angry after Economy Minister Juan Andres Fontaine urged commuters to get up earlier to take advantage of the cheaper fare for travel before 7.00 am.
Metro de Santiago is a private firm, though the Chilean government holds a stake in the company. The fares are set by a panel of experts based on factors such as inflation, the system’s operating costs and the exchange rate.