The charred remains of five people were discovered in a garment factory set fire by protesters on the outskirts of Chile’s capital Santiago Sunday, as weeks of simmering protests over inequality turned violent.
The five bodies brought the death toll from protest-related violence to at least seven, after Interior Minister Andres Chadwick revealed that two women burned to death after a store owned by Walmart was set alight in the early hours of Sunday.
Another victim, whom authorities initially said had died in hospital, suffered burns on 75 percent of her body.
The government’s response to tamp down the violence included deploying more than 10,000 troops in Santiago on Sunday, the first time the army has been on the streets since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990. A state of emergency already in place in Santiago since Friday was expanded to other cities to the north and south of the capital, and the government imposed a night-time curfew to keep people off the streets.
The protests were sparked by a hike in metro prices, but that’s only a symptom of a deep underlying frustration at growing inequalities and a failure to embrace economic reform.
After two weeks of increasingly fractious protests over a hike in public transport fares, Chile’s embattled President Sebastián Pinera announced Saturday night that he was reversing the decision.
But, in a late-night televised statement on Sunday, Pinera appeared to inflame the situation further, saying the country was “at war” and labeling protesters as criminals.
“We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits,” Pinera said in the speech broadcast from the army headquarters in Santiago. “Tomorrow we will have a difficult day. We are very aware that [those behind the riots] have a degree of organization, logistics, typical of a criminal organization.”
What happened Sunday?
The fare-hike reversal announcement did little to appease protesters, with the government claiming that 70 “serious incidents of violence”, including 40 lootings of supermarkets and other businesses, were reported Sunday.
The violence wasn’t just in Santiago, with authorities reporting that almost 1,500 people were arrested in major cites across the country. The state of emergency was extended to cities including Valparaíso, Antofagasta, and Valdivia.
Rioters in the capital set fire to buses and damaged subway stations, supermarkets, and offices. Police responded with water cannons and tear gas.
Santiago came to a virtual standstill as all public transport was shut down. Shops and offices were forced to close and many flights were canceled at the international airport, leaving thousands of people stranded and unable to leave due to the curfew.
The dusk-to-dawn curfew was extended for a second night on Sunday, going into effect at 7 p.m. local time after which people should “be calm and all in their homes,” according to top defense official General Javier Iturriaga.
Why are Chileans rioting?
The current crisis, the worst of Pinera’s second term in office, began as a fare-dodging protest following the government’s decision to hike metro fares from 800 pesos to 830 pesos ($1.13 to $1.17) for peak-time travel, following a 20-peso rise in January.
But the discontent isn’t just about an increase in the price of metro tickets. Chile, one of the region’s wealthiest nations, is also one of the most inequal, and protesters are demanding changes to correct the imbalance.
Chile has the highest per capita income in Latin America at $20,000, is expected to record 2.5 percent growth this year, and has just 2 percent inflation. However, the widespread privatization of the healthcare system and education, together with spiraling costs of basic goods and services, has led to rising inequality.
The simmering discontent with the government, and in particular with their billionaire president, was seen recently in some of the country's universities and schools over a lack of resources and underfunding.
What happens next?
Monday is likely to see a resumption of the protests seen over the weekend, with many banks, schools, and shops expected to remain closed.
Authorities said just one line of the city's metro was expected to reopen Monday after the entire system was closed Friday because of the damage caused during the protests.
Pinera has appealed for calm. During his televised address on Sunday, he said there were good reasons to take to the streets, but asked for those doing so “to demonstrate peacefully” adding that “nobody has the right to act with brutal criminal violence.”
But Pinera’s appeal may have come too late.
“The protests are more than just about fare increase,” Boris Van Der Spek, founder of the independent news website Chile Today, told Al Jazeera. “It is about the cost of living and the level of inequality in the country. There is so much discontent in Chile. This was always going to happen one way or another.”
Cover: A protester returns a tear gas canister to police during clashes in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Protests in the country have spilled over into a new day, even after President Sebastian Pinera cancelled the subway-fare hike that prompted massive and violent demonstrations. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)