Chile's capital of Santiago has been rocked by riots driven largely by students, leading to President Sebastian Pinera declaring a state of emergency over the city, at the end of a week which by Friday witnessed increasingly violent unrest force the shutdown of the entire metro system, and which turned central areas into a war zone as protesters clashed with police.
Buildings and metro stations have been set on fire, and over 150 police officers injured, as students were seen in running clashes with security forces. The high-rise corporate headquarters of electric utility Enel was filmed going up in flames on Saturday as military troops were confirmed to be patrolling central streets and neighborhoods.
The protests appear driven by multiple grievances over rising costs of living, including public services, healthcare and education, sparked by a recent rise in metro fare, which reportedly enraged the nation's large demographic of university students.
Reports suggest the largely youth-led unrest is targeting the capital's transport and energy hubs and centers, as well as police, due to lack of promised reforms in these sectors, adding to the cost of living woes.
Over the past week the metro authority has reported dozens of vandalism incidents related to a sudden price hike on fares reportedly due to higher energy costs and a weaker peso, with "serious destruction" of Santiago's vast subway system, which serves a total city population of seven million, making it impossible to operate safely.
Footage circulating on social media showed entire metro trains on fire, with various parts of the city also ablaze, as mostly high school and university students set up makeshift barricades, attacked multiple metro stations, started fires, and generally brought the usually bustling city to a standstill.
President Pinera upon announcing the new state of emergency, said “The aim is to ensure public order and the safety of public and private property,” in a televised address.
Sacarlos a la calle fue un grave error pic.twitter.com/54H4P1RHCh— Davor Mimica (@dmimica) October 19, 2019
The Chilean president further vowed, “There will be no room for violence in a country with the rule of law at its core.”
As The Guardian summarizes, the declaration gives authorities carte blanch to hand down harsh sentences to anyone caught violating public order:
As ordained by Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution, the state of emergency will apply to Santiago and can last for 15 days. It grants the government additional powers to restrict citizens’ freedom of movement and their right to assembly. Ominously, soldiers will return to the streets for the first time since an earthquake devastated parts of the country in 2010.
...In practice the law means that heavy sentences of up to 20 years imprisonment could be handed down to those found guilty of inhibiting or damaging public services.
Saturday witnessed scenes of dozens of armored military troop carriers rapidly deploying across Santiago.
In #Santiago, Chile - foreigners, civilians, and many Americans are on lockdown unable to leave or go anywhere due to the riots.— Jennifer DeMaster (@JenDemaster) October 19, 2019
Tanks & forces seen driving up streets just feet from where American/Chilean and other foreign students are studying. #EvasionMasiva pic.twitter.com/IdG3s8lvso
Protesters and activists decried what they described as "tanks in the streets" amid the general crackdown.
Meanwhile the Chilean student federation has urged a nationwide strike for Monday, after an estimated $700,000 worth of damage had been done to the city's high-tech metro rail system.
Though Chile remains among the wealthiest countries in Latin America, the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor is believed to be a key contributing factor to this week's dramatic unrest.