Chile’s military moves through shadows to spot coronavirus curfew breakers

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The armored vehicle rumbles through the near-empty, darkened streets of a scruffy neighborhood in the Chilean capital Santiago, bristling with heavily-armed troops.

This is safeguarding the coronavirus lockdowns and curfews Chilean-style, with soldiers and police working in tandem, wielding weaponry but with a carefully gloved fist.

Captain Nicolas Zamora told Reuters he and his men are mindful of the growing poverty and hunger also caused by the pandemic, and the risk it could exacerbate simmering tensions that remain from the social protests that exploded in October last year.

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The army, mandated to safeguard curfews and lockdowns under a state of catastrophe to counter the coronavirus declared by President Sebastian Pinera in March, has drafted in reinforcements from around the country for a fresh crackdown this week in Santiago.

Troops and police conduct joint operations on public transport, in shopping precincts and highways around the city amid a surge in case numbers and deaths, which hit 160,846 and 2,870 respectively on Friday, the health ministry said. Chile now has the highest number of cases in Latin America per million people, according to World meter data.

Traffic and people movement data has revealed that particularly in Santiago’s poorest communities, people are routinely going out.

Fines have been bolstered to between two and 50 million pesos ($2,500 to $63,000) for those who test positive with coronavirus and still venture out.

On Thursday night, in Quilicura in northern Santiago, a neighborhood known for its predominance of drug gangs, Captain Zamora’s men working with police and local council staff carried out mobile patrols and roadblocks.

Those caught in their net within an hour were a young woman in skin-tight jeans and her boyfriend, a takeaway food driver, a taxi and youth lurking in a side lane in a clapped out car. Most had the correct paperwork and were sent on their way.

Captain Zamora said most people simply push the boundaries, exceeding the limits of their shopping permits or, in the case of older citizens, struggle to download permits from the police website.

In recent days though, the message seemed to be getting through.

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