World

Chile shuts down capital city metro as violent protests spread

Chilean officials shut down the metro system in Santiago on Friday after demonstrators protesting recent fare hikes took to the streets and attacked subway stops, leaving widespread damage across the capital city of nearly six million people.

Protesters jumping barriers, forcing subway doors, delaying trains over higher fees

A demonstrator protests against the increase in subway ticket prices in Santiago, Chile, on Thursday. Protests turned increasingly violent on Friday, prompting officials to close down all of the city's 136 metro stations. (Carlos Vera/Reuters)

Chilean officials shut down the metro system in Santiago on Friday after demonstrators protesting recent fare hikes took to the streets and attacked subway stops, leaving widespread damage across the capital city of nearly six million people.

Black-hooded protesters lit fires at the entrances to several stations, burned a public bus and swung metal pipes at train station turnstiles during the Friday afternoon commute, according to witnesses, social media and television footage.

The protests turned increasingly violent, and by early Friday evening, officials had closed down all of the city's 136 metro stations, which connect more than 87 miles of track.

Thousands more joined after nightfall, clanging pots and blocking traffic in the normally subdued South American capital.

The unrest underscores sharp divisions in Chile, one of Latin America's wealthiest nations but also one of its most unequal. Frustrations over the high cost of living in Santiago have become a political flashpoint, prompting calls for reforms to everything from the country's tax and labour codes to its pension system.

Metro officials said the system would remain closed through the weekend, citing "serious destruction" that made it impossible to operate trains safely.

Chile calls for tougher penalties on protesters

Earlier Friday, Chile's government said it would ask the courts to use a state security law to impose tougher penalties on youth who have been protesting in recent days by jumping turnstiles and disrupting transport in the capital.

"It is one thing to demonstrate and another to commit the vandalism we have observed," President Sebastian Pinera told national radio station Radio Agricultural. "This desire for all this is not protest, it is crime."

Metro management says there have been more than 200 incidents on Santiago's subway system in 11 days, mostly involving school children and older students jumping barriers and forcing gates, as well as delaying trains by dangling their feet over the platforms.

Police told Reuters they had to use tear gas and batons in extreme cases. Two police officers were injured on Thursday, a spokesperson added, without providing details.

The protests started after the government raised prices on Oct. 6 by $0.04 to $1.17 for a peak metro ride and by one cent to $1 for a bus, blaming higher energy costs and a weaker Chilean peso.

A metro spokesperson told Reuters the subway system sustained around $700,000 worth of damage since the protests began. 

Demonstrators protest against the increase in the subway ticket prices in Santiago. (Carlos Vera/Reuters)

After a meeting with the metro chief and interior minister, Transport Minister Gloria Hutt told reporters the fare hike would not be reversed, and pointed out the government subsidizes almost half the operating costs of the metro, one of Latin America's most modern.

"This is not a discussion that should have risen to the level of violence that we've seen," she said.

Support for Pinera has waned to around 30 per cent in the second year of his term as his government struggles in an opposition-dominated congress to push through pension, labour and tax reforms.

Alejandro Guillier, a centre-left senator who ran against Pinera in the last election, said the government was overreacting.

"Categorizing every protest as criminal and sending forces to repress them is turning a blind eye to frustration and anger," he wrote on Twitter.

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