SANTIAGO – Chile's president on Thursday announced measures to increase security and toughen sanctions for vandalism following three weeks of protests that have left at least 20 dead.
President Sebastián Piñera said the measures that he'll send to Congress include bills against looting and the destruction of property with bigger penalties for hooded vandals who try to mask their identities. He said some will seek the re-enforcement of aerial surveillance and police intelligence to fight crime.
The measures seek to help "Chile overcome these difficult three weeks and re-store our social peace, progress and unity among Chileans," Piñera said.
The unrest began 21 days ago over a hike to subway fares, and it has grown into a massive movement demanding a broad range of changes. They include calls for improvements in education, health and a widely criticized pension system in one of the wealthiest, but most unequal nations in Latin America.
Most protests have been peaceful, but some have turned violent with daily clashes between police and demonstrators. There have been cases of arson and looting.
When the protests broke out, Piñera reacted by saying that Chile was at "war" and faced a "powerful, relentless enemy." He eventually rolled back the subway hike and declared a state of emergency that was widely criticized. He then took a more conciliatory tone, accepted some blame and announced economic measures and a cabinet reshuffle.
Some analysts say his latest effort to crack down on vandals and his decision to call a meeting of the national security council could exacerbate violence.
"It reinforces the perception that the president is out of touch with citizen demands and that his government sees protesters as criminals," said Jenny Pribble, associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
"Taking this position in a setting of increased repression and violence is likely to fuel additional mobilization."
Protests and violent clashes between riot police and stone-throwing demonstrators continued Thursday in cities nationwide. In the capital, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich tried to visit some injured who were being treated at a public hospital, but he was driven away by angry hospital workers who say they lack medical supplies to care for the wounded.
Chilean Police Director General Mario Rozas said Wednesday that about 10,000 people have been detained since the protests began.
A local prosecutor is investigating at least 14 cases of alleged human rights violations by police.
A U.N. human rights team has also been gathering testimony about hundreds of people allegedly injured by Chile's police during the protests.