By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Fabian Cambero
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - A Chilean prosecutor on Wednesday said he would seek court approval to investigate 14 police officers for allegedly torturing protesters during almost three weeks of intense unrest and rioting in the country.
The protests over deep-seated inequalities in one of Latin America’s richest countries have been less violent in recent days, but show few signs of easing, with demonstrators gathering on Wednesday near a huge shopping mall in one of Santiago’s more upscale neighborhoods.
Santiago East prosecutor Manuel Guerra said his investigation was related to two separate incidents during a nine-day state of emergency in the capital from Oct. 18.
One related to the actions of 12 police officers in Nunoa, a bohemian suburb of Santiago, where protesters defied a curfew to conduct successive nights of large but mainly peaceful demonstrations, a spokesman for Guerra told Reuters, without providing further details.
The second related to two officers in the lower-middle class area of La Florida who were accused of beating a young man who was handcuffed, the spokesman said.
A police spokeswoman told Reuters she did not know if the officers had been suspended and declined to comment further.
Chile’s worst unrest since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship has caused at least 23 deaths, more than 7,000 detentions, and injuries to 1,659 protesters and 800 police officers, according to authorities and rights groups.
Prosecutors are investigating more than 800 allegations of abuse, including torture, rape and beatings by security forces during demonstrations over inequality and the cost of living that have often degenerated into riots.
Guerra’s spokesman said he would request that the 14 police officers under investigation for allegedly torturing protesters be detained while the cases were investigated.
President Sebastian Pinera on Thursday promised that police and soldiers found guilty of rights violations would be prosecuted with the same force as rioters and looters.
“This president is committed to total respect for human rights at all times and in all circumstances,” center-right Pinera said from La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.
“We will investigate any excess, failure of protocol in the use of force or excessive use of force,” Pinera said.
He rejected criticism on social media that his ministers have only visited injured police, not protesters, saying he would visit demonstrators in the coming days.
A team sent by Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief and former Chilean president, and another from Amnesty International, were also in Chile interviewing alleged victims.
Chileans on social media called for another rally on Wednesday at the base of Latin America’s tallest building, the Costanera Center, a mirror-glass 1000-foot (300-meter) tower at the heart of so-called Sanhattan, Santiago’s business district.
Shops at the center’s mall closed shortly after midday. Most protesters who arrived were quickly dispersed by police using water cannons.
Masked vandals later looted a nearby coffee shop, pharmacy, a grocery store and several other small shops, blockading a main boulevard with a bonfire and bringing evening traffic to a standstill. Vandals also attacked the offices of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party several blocks from the Costanera center.
Evelyn Matthei, mayor of the upscale Providencia neighborhood, said dozens of shops had been damaged or looted.
“We’re seeing a level of violence and destruction that we’ve never seen before,” she said on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, the drivers of tractor trailer trucks protesting road tolls caused commuter chaos, blocking major highways that ring Santiago.
Drivers and passengers parked on the highway bailed from their vehicles to play soccer in the middle of a major regional highway, television images showed.
Pinera, meanwhile, pushed forward with reforms aimed at taming the continuing unrest.
He sent a law to parliament to guarantee a minimum wage of $480 a month, part of an ambitious social spending plan announced last month as the protests grew.
“We are responding with action and not just good intentions to those things that people have demanded with so much force,” he said in a televised speech.
Chile’s finance minister told the congressional budgetary committee on Wednesday that the government would draw $600 million from its sovereign wealth fund to finance the social plan.
Reporting by Natalia Ramos, Fabian Cambero and Aislinn Laing; Writing by Aislinn Laing and Dave Sherwood; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O'Brien