SANTIAGO – Protests against a recent subway fare hike in Santiago turned into serious disturbances early on Saturday as acts of arson and vandalism shook the Chilean capital, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in the region and deploy troops in a bid to quell the unrest.
Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera said in the early hours of Saturday that the government had been compelled to impose the measure, which affects the province of Santiago and some nearby communes, to “ensure public order and the safety of public and private property.”
Piñera also called for dialogue and promised that his administration would seek ways to “alleviate the suffering of those affected by the increase in ticket prices.”
Army troops were deployed throughout the most restive areas of the metropolis of around 6 million inhabitants. This was confirmed by Major Gen. Javier Iturriaga del Campo, who has been put in command of the operation to restore order.
Friday was the 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 – had 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, used tear gas to disperse protesters inside the stations and even inside the metro cars.
Streets surrounding Plaza Italia, a square that is often the site of protests, were blocked by metal barricades and bonfires.
Fires were started near a dozen subway stations as well as inside the offices of Italian energy corporation Enel in the capital’s downtown area, which were later extinguished.
Around a dozen buses were set on fire, accompanied by the widespread looting of supermarkets, pharmacies and fast-food chains, among other businesses.
Meanwhile, in Maipu commune – located to the southwest of the Metropolitan Region – the subway station was almost completely destroyed.
Following a meeting with 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 system’s “safe and normal operation.”
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 even angrier after Economy Minister Juan Andres Fontaine urged commuters to get up earlier to take advantage of the cheaper fare for travel before 7 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.
Opposition leaders have criticized the authorities for failing to realize that the core problem was not subway fares but rather the rampant inequality afflicting the country.
Some government officials have countered that the acts of civil disobedience that have taken place cannot be considered acceptable in a democracy – which they claimed only afforded the right to peacefully demonstrate – and said that the destruction of public furniture was never justified.