Chile calls for tougher penalties to crack down on fare hike protests

SANTIAGO, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Chile’s government said on Friday it would ask the courts to use a state security law to impose tougher penalties on youth who have been protesting a recent hike in bus and metro fares by jumping turnstiles and disrupting transport in the capital.

“It is one thing to demonstrate and another to commit the vandalism we have observed,” President Sebastian Pinera told national radio station Radio Agricultural. “This desire for all this is not protest, it is crime.”

Metro management says there have been more than 200 incidents on Santiago’s subway system in 11 days, mostly involving school children and older students jumping barriers and forcing gates, as well as delaying trains by dangling their feet over the platforms.

Police told Reuters they had to use teargas and batons in extreme cases. Two police officers were injured on Thursday, a spokesman added, without providing details.

The protests started after the government raised prices on Oct. 6 by $0.04 to $1.17 for a peak metro ride and by one cent to $1 for a bus, blaming higher energy costs and a weaker peso.

A metro spokesman told Reuters the subway system had sustained around $700,000 worth of damage since the protests began. Thirty-one stations had been closed and access to another 58 was restricted, the spokesman said.

The metro said it was forced to close two of the network’s seven lines at lunchtime on Friday after protest action.

After a meeting with the metro chief and interior minister, Transport Minister Gloria Hutt told reporters the fare hike would not be reversed, and pointed out the government subsidizes 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.

The protests reflect sharp divisions in Chile, one of Latin America’s wealthiest nations but also one of its most unequal.

Support for Pinera has waned to around 30% in the second year of his term as his government struggles in an opposition-dominated congress to push through pension, labor and tax reforms.

Alejandro Guillier, a center-left senator who ran against Pinera in the last election, said the government was overreacting.

“Categorizing every protest as criminal and sending forces to repress them is turning a blind eye to frustration and anger,” he wrote on Twitter. (Reporting by Aislinn Laing Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)