Chilean lawmakers warn democracy at stake as violence spikes

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean lawmakers agreed late on Wednesday to fast-track reforms to beef up security, warning that a resurgence in violence and vandalism was threatening to derail the country’s 30-year-old democracy.

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Five weeks of unrest over inequality and shabby social services have left at least 26 dead and more than 13,500 injured, prosecutors said. Riots have hobbled the capital’s public transport system, once the envy of Latin America, and caused billions in losses for private business.

The deal, struck between ruling party and opposition lawmakers, acknowledged the government had done too little, too late to stem the crisis. “The country is confronting a crisis of violence and vandalism that threatens our democracy,” begins the two-page document.

A fresh round of attacks and rioting earlier this week sent Chile’s peso plummeting to a new low against the dollar at the market close on Wednesday. Forecasts for economic growth and unemployment are increasingly grim.

President Sebastian Pinera urged Congress earlier on Wednesday to push forward with bills he introduced weeks ago to ramp up intelligence gathering and toughen penalties against still-rampant looting and destruction.

“Violence is causing harm that may become irreparable to the body and soul of our society,” Pinera said from the La Moneda presidential palace.

Lawmakers agreed in the Wednesday-night deal to push forward with “resolve” the security reforms, urging Pinera to use the “constitutional tools” at his disposal to quell the violence, while protecting human rights.

Similar riots have erupted in countries across Latin America, including Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia in recent months as unrest has spiraled into violence and demands for political, social and economic reforms.

Chile´s Interior Ministry reported that police arrested 915 people Tuesday, while the number of “serious incidents” overnight had nearly doubled from the previous day.

Vandals looted a major hotel in the seaside tourist city of La Serena, turning over tables, ripping paintings off walls and breaking windows. Protesters also targeted upscale areas of Santiago, marching through a shopping mall in the ritzy mountainside suburb of La Dehesa earlier in the week and another in Las Condes on Wednesday.

Officials had shut key commuter metro stations by mid-afternoon Wednesday throughout the capital’s business area, known as Sanhattan for its gleaming skyscrapers and designer stores, as protests grew.

Pinera’s efforts to quell the violence have so far come up short, despite promises to beef up pensions, the minimum wage and healthcare benefits. The country’s normally fractious political parties have agreed to work together on a new constitution, though differences remain.

Protests appear driven by mistrust that politicians will keep their promises to bring significant change, and enduring fury over police handling of demonstrators.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Additional reporting by Aislinn Laing and Natalia Ramos; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler