SANTIAGO (REUTERS) - Chilean officials shut down the metro system and declared a state of emergency in Santiago on Friday (Oct 18) 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.
Thousands more joined after nightfall, clanging pots and blocking traffic in the normally subdued South American capital.
Metro officials said the system would remain closed through the weekend, citing "serious destruction" that made it impossible to operate trains safely.
"It is one thing to demonstrate and another to commit the vandalism we have observed," President Sebastian Pinera told national radio station Radio Agricultural earlier in the day. "This is not protest, it is crime."
High school and university students began the protest after the government hiked fares on Oct 6 by as much as US$1.17 (S$1.60) for a peak metro ride, blaming higher energy costs and a weaker peso.
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 management said there had been more than 200 incidents on Santiago's subway system in the previous 11 days, mostly involving schoolchildren and older students jumping barriers and forcing gates. Police told Reuters they had to use teargas and batons in extreme cases.
The protests turned increasingly violent on Friday afternoon, however, 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.
Earlier in the day, after a meeting with the metro chief and interior minister, Transport Minister Gloria Hutt told reporters the fare hike would not be reversed. She said the government subsidises 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 the centre-right Pinera has waned to around 30 per cent in the second year of his term as his government struggles to push reforms through an opposition-led legislature.