Marking a year since protests and riots broke out in the Chilean capital of Santiago, rioters on Oct. 18 set fire to two of the city's churches and damaged other areas of the city, while tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched to a central Santiago square to protest growing economic inequality in the country.
Mass protests and riots were sparked on Oct. 18 last year when commuters reacted to an increase in train fares, which the government quickly reversed. But the protests, estimated to be attended by around 1 million people, then expanded into wider calls for action on low wages, income disparity, and increasing living costs facing many Chileans, which some analysts say are the result of the country’s aggressive climate policies adopted under former Socialist Party President Michelle Bachelet, which raised energy and transport costs and reduced household disposable income, impacting low-income households the most.
Leftist groups also started demanding the resignation of conservative President Sebastián Piñera, as well as changes to the country’s constitution, which was approved in a 1980 plebiscite during the military dictatorship of anti-communist President Augusto Pinochet. A referendum on whether to replace the constitution is scheduled for next week. Two key demands of protesters are to make the state responsible for providing healthcare and education.
Over 30 people have died—some during altercations with police—and thousands more wounded in the month of October last year as rioters set ablaze dozens of metro stations and smashed and looted pharmacies, supermarkets, and gasoline pumps, disrupting the supply of essential goods.
Thousands of police and riot police resorted to tear gas and water cannons to disperse the riots.
The chaos cost Chilean businesses about $1.4 billion in losses, and the city’s metro public transport suffered nearly $400 million in damages. Police made at least 7,000 arrests.
The only democratically elected conservative president since 1958, Piñera said following the riots last year that "violent activists" were behind the violence and destruction.
"They are at war against all Chileans of good will who want to live in a democracy with freedom and in peace," he said, adding that he understood the hardships compelling peaceful protesters to the streets.
"I commit the best effort of our government as we have been doing these years to put children 'first in line,' to improve pensions, to lower the price of medicines, to ensure that all Chileans have the opportunity of a fuller and happier life."
In scenes mirroring far-left riots in the United States, Chile on Oct. 18 saw further widespread incidents of violence, looting, and vandalism in the afternoon after a morning of peaceful and spirited protests by people singing, dancing, and wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 in Santiago's Plaza Italia.
Afternoon and evening demonstrations saw a different group of protesters emerge, who burned the churches, vandalized a statue in Plaza Italia with red paint, and attacked police stations and shops.
Police estimated that about 25,000 attended the daytime protests before 6 p.m.—far fewer than the Oct. 18 protest of 2019.
Local media reported that five people were arrested in relation to the burning and looting of San Francisco de Borja Church (the Church of Saint Francis of Borgia)—a historic building erected in 1876 that has been dedicated to the Chilean national police force for the last 40 years—which has been the target of constant attacks, particularly since October last year.
Fortunately, firefighters managed to get the blaze under control.
But the Parroquia de la Asunción (Church of the Assumption or "artists' parish"), also built in 1876, was totally burned and destroyed by groups of hooded men, according to further local media reports. The church's burning spire fell to the ground around 8 p.m.
The archbishop of Santiago, Celestino Aós, said of the new round of riots that the poor would again be "most affected" by the destruction.
"Violent actions and vandalism we suffer again today," he said. "We mourn the destruction of our temples and other public property. But above all, we feel the pain of so many Chilean people of peace and generosity."
"Those images not only impact and hurt in Chile, but also impact and hurt in other countries and other peoples of the world, especially Christian brothers," he said of the church burnings.
About 300 rioters also organized an attack on the 20th Police Station in the commune of Puente Alto around 6:15 p.m., throwing Molotov cocktails and other objects at the station, according to local outlet Atentos Chile. Similar attacks were reported at other police stations. One officer was reported to have been shot and at least 22 police have been admitted to the hospital after sustaining injuries, La Tercera reported.
Chile's Interior Minister Víctor Pérez on Oct. 18 praised the peaceful protesters from earlier in the day and condemned the individuals involved in the violence and mayhem who took over in the afternoon. He called for only "a peaceful demonstration" and urged Chileans to resolve their differences through dialogue and the democratic process in the upcoming Oct. 25 constitutional plebiscite.
"We cannot ignore that unfortunately within that demonstration, minority groups carried out acts of violence," the minister said of the day's protests.
Deputies of Chile's conservative Independent Democratic Union, Jorge Alessandri, Sergio Bobadilla, and Gustavo Sanhueza, said that after last year's riots, “the country fell into a spiral of decline, where the left again managed to establish that a pack of criminals are heroes, and that Carabineors [the Chilean national police force] are the murderers."
Bobadilla and Sanhueza said: “What must be done at this time is to empower our police and the armed forces, to restore order and tranquility in our streets. And those who don't like it, let them go to Venezuela.”
The director general of the Carabineros addressed the nation late Oct. 18, saying: “Who the criminals are ... who the vandals are. We hope that good people, who demonstrate peacefully, will cooperate with us to isolate criminals, arrest them, and place them before the courts."
About 400,000 police officers have been deployed throughout the country as the government prepares for similar riots as witnessed last year. Authorities have pleaded with protesters to take necessary COVID-19 precautions.