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Police chase El Centro protesters with tear gas as public transit strike paralyzes city

After they dispersed a morning rally in Parque Calderon with tear gas, police spent the rest of Thursday in a cat-and-mouse game with bands of protesters roaming the streets of Cuenca’s historic district. Police used armored trucks with tear gas cannons and motorcycles as well as mounted police brigades to scatter protesters, most of whom wore masks or bandanas, some carrying sticks and metal pipes.

Mounted police rest after chasing protesters on Calle Sucre.

Parque Calderon was barricaded before noon, moving most of the protests to surrounding streets which were closed to traffic. As of 6 p.m., the street action showed no sign of letting up and a police captain posted at Gran Colombia and Malo said the crowd appeared to be growing.

The day began as a nationwide transportation strike. Almost all taxis and buses — both city and inter-provincial — were out of service, many of them participating in blockades of major city streets. In several locations, protesters of the government’s decision to raise gasoline and diesel prices burned tires. At 1 p.m., 40 streets and highways in and around Cuenca were reported blocked.

The Parque Calderon protest, made up mostly of University of Cuenca students, turned unruly when some protesters threw rocks and paintballs at the police protecting the Gobernacion building. When police responded with tear gas, the crowd dispersed. Some students blamed the rock throwing on infiltrados, or thugs, who joined the protest to engage with police.

Parque Calderon protesters shortly before the tear gas flew. (El Tiempo)

A larger crowd of taxi and bus owners and drivers and their supporters was expected to gather at the park in the afternoon but the protest was called off due to the the park closure and the disturbances on surrounding streets.

For many of those observing the action in El Centro, the afternoon took on a festival atmosphere. “This reminds me of the old days and I can’t say that I don’t enjoy it in a perverse sort of way,” said Jeff Seamans, who moved to Cuenca since 2001. “Some of it is disturbing but it’s also about kids having fun and challenging authority. It reminds of my student protest days back in California.”

Seamans said when he first arrived in Cuenca, protesters were routinely dispersed with tear gas in Parque Calderon. “The cops also threw gas down on 12 de Abril when the college kids would march to Banco Pichincha and throw rocks at the windows.”

He added: “Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s a lot of bad shit happening but so far I haven’t seen anyone hurt or much property damage other than some new graffiti. Fortunately, the police have been pretty restrained.”

Business owners along the protest routes were less forgiving, most of them closing early and pulling down their metal shutters. “This is a mess and I will be happy when the soldiers come to town tomorrow,” said Graciela Ortiz, who owns a tienda on Mariscal Sucre. Like the college students, she blamed most of the unrest on infiltrados. “Look at them. They look like glue sniffers and thieves. They aren’t students,” she said.

The soldiers Ortiz referred to could take up positions in the city as early as tonight as a result of President Lenin Moreno’s afternoon state of emergency declaration.

According the ministry of transportation, access to Cuenca, Quito, Ambato and Riobamba was closed by the protests and many taxi and bus drivers were out in the streets despite a steady morning rain in all four cities.

Fights were reported at several blockades in Cuenca as angry motorists attempted to pass through. Near the Feria Libre market on Av. Las Americas, a truck attempting to deliver produce rammed two taxis and police interceded to prevent a fight.