Chile's Pinera, responding to protests, cracks down on white-collar crime

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced legislation on Friday to combat white collar crimes such as insider trading and collusion, the latest in a series of proposals aimed at quelling the demands of continuing protests over inequality.

Pinera shipped several bills to Congress to beef up penalties against colluding to fix prices on sensitive consumer products, while stiffening fines and jail time for financial crimes ranging from fraud to insider trading.

The legislation also provides regulators with more tools to investigate the crimes and establishes new protections for “whistleblowers” in both public and private sectors who come forward with evidence of crimes.

“The immense majority of Chileans want to build a more just, more equal Chile, without abuses or privileges. That’s the message we have heard loud and clear from the people,” Pinera said in a speech at the La Moneda presidential palace.

Price fixing and other financial crimes lie at the heart of recent protests over social and economic injustices in Chile that have left at least 31 dead and wrought billions in damages to business.

Since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, allegations of price fixing have cropped up in markets for items from chicken to diapers, milk, drugs, asphalt and even gynecological visits, outraging many Chileans, who demand changes to the country’s economic model.

Anger over these abuses appears in graffiti spray-painted on building walls across Santiago, a city of 6 million, and in the signs carried by protesters rebuking such crimes.

“When these bills become law, we will have freer, more transparent markets, more competitive companies, products of higher quality and lower prices,” Pinera said.

Chileans will vote on whether to rewrite the country’s dictatorship-era constitution in April. Many have also called for tougher consumer protections to be worked into a new Magna Carta.

Pinera said on Friday he would soon announce further protections for consumer and worker rights.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Dan Grebler